A SENIOR councillor has hit back at claims there is a "cultural and systematic" failure within the council following a £1m overspend on renovating a council building.

Tony Johnson, speaking as leader of the Conservative group for Herefordshire and not on behalf of Herefordshire Council, said councillors from opposition parties could have called-in a decision by cabinet to approve the overspend - but did not.

As reported last week, an audit revealed that Herefordshire Council officers had failed to follow procedure when approving building works at Blueschool House, which leader of It's Our County, Anthony Powers, said was a "cultural and systematic failure."

Cllr Johnson said the works were originally estimated at £950,000 but in April the council was advised, due to an issue with the roof, it would cost around £70,000 to £100,000 more.

Officers then only went to one contractor and discovered works would actually cost £1.92m but, at that point, officers failed to bring the issue back to the cabinet.

In last week's paper, Independent Cllr Bob Matthews said he believes if the Independents had not asked for the matter to be thoroughly investigated the matter would have been "filed away" and forgotten.

But Cllr Johnson said it was chief finance officer Andrew Lovegrove who discovered the larger overspend after he started in his post and the issue was immediately brought to the attention of the chief executive.

He said: "The process to authorise spend was in place and known to officers who, for reasons being investigated, ignored that process.

"At that time it would not have been possible for anyone other than those directly involved to know that this had taken place.

"On the day this unauthorised overspend became known, the chief executive immediately took action ordering an audit report. That report was the subject of discussion at the recent audit and governance committee meeting."

He said the sums involved were then discussed at a public cabinet meeting in July.

He added: "That meeting was attended by Cllr Matthews and others who, had they chosen, could have called in the subject for scrutiny. They did not. Why?"

Cllr Johnson said the council employs 1,200 staff and allocates £350m per year, including £70/£80m per year of capital spend. He said the council has operated within budget for five consecutive years.

He added: "This level of activity is not possible without some mistakes and when they occur we examine them in public – NOT behind closed doors.

"Our external auditors describe our financial management as 'fantastic' in these most difficult times. To suggest therefore that there is a culture of failure is an insult to elected members and hard working staff."

Cllr Johnson added: "At election time members of the public may well consider the inaction and motivation of Cllrs Matthews, Hardwick and Chappell and other such moralising defenders of the public purse.

"Cllr Bowen, chairman of Overview and Scrutiny, was unashamedly political in his pompous radio comment. Having chosen not to call the matter in, perhaps it is these councillors who should consider their positions."

A peer review by the Local Government Association has been arranged.