Somerset County Council denies MP's claim of £361,000 overpayments to highways contractor

By Tim Lethaby

30th Jan 2021 | Local News

Somerset County Council's headquarters at County Hall in Taunton (Photo: Daniel Mumby)
Somerset County Council's headquarters at County Hall in Taunton (Photo: Daniel Mumby)

Somerset County Council has denied claims made by an MP that it overpaid its highways contractor to the tune of £361,000.

The council has a contract with Skanska to carry out essential road repairs and maintenance across Somerset, which is worth £30 million a year.

Ian Liddell-Grainger, the MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, used parliamentary privilege on Monday (January 25) to accuse the council of overpaying Skanska for work carried out, blaming a combination of "bad decisions, blind leadership and sloppy practice".

But an official audit into the contract has found that duplicate payment requests were identified, yet no money changed hands.

The council has also stated it could recover any overpayments if such circumstances came to light in the future.

Mr Liddell-Grainger's claim

Ian Liddell-Grainger – who has represented the Bridgwater area since 2001 – made his allegations in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon (January 25) as part of an opposition debate on council tax.

He described the council as a "lumbering dinosaur" with "an appalling record of mismanagement and financial jiggery-pokery dating back decades".

He said: "In common with many councils, the road network under Somerset County Council is an expensive failure and has been a complete disaster.

"The council signed a contract with Skanska, a worldwide enterprise with a pretty good reputation, three years ago.

"Skanska would fill the potholes, lay the tarmac and smooth out the wrinkles of the incompetence in County Hall, all for £30 million a year.

"Common sense says that you get precisely what you pay for - not in Somerset. Believe it or not, the council has not checked the Skanska invoices.

"At the moment, the council has overpaid by more than £300,000 and probably a great deal more; the guess down here is that it runs into millions."

The auditor's findings

The South West Audit Partnership (SWAP) was asked by the council to investigate this issue in early-2020 after officers received two payment requests from Skanska totalling £361,000.

SWAP began its investigation in May 2020 and reported its findings in October; however, this was not made public until a virtual meeting of the council's audit committee on Thursday morning (January 28).

The investigation found that Skanska had made "a significant number of duplicate payment requests" in the first three years of its council contract, which began in 2017.

However, the auditors said these requests involved Skanska re-applying after failing to follow the proper process the first time around, rather than asking to be paid twice for the same amount of work.

Andrew Turner, the council's strategic manager for highways, said: "A review of the payment process was conducted, and this highlighted two incidents amounting to £361,000 in value, where Skanska had failed to accurately assess the previous paid sum prior to applying for payment.

"It transpired that Skanska had not undertaken checks for the full term of the contract."

The council's response

Alyn Jones, the council's director of economic and community infrastructure operations, confirmed to the audit committee on Thursday (January 28) that no duplicate payments had occurred to Skanska.

He said: "First and foremost, the MP's claim about the overpayment is not the case.

"The auditor's report clearly states an overpayment was requested, but this was identified and interventions were made at an early opportunity.

"We sought the advice of SWAP on this matter to ensure that our systems were robust. There is nothing secret about it – it shows we are self-aware.

"There is no evidence of dishonest behaviour by Skanksa. The contract allows for the recovery of overcharges and duplicate payments."

In a separate statement released after the meeting, the council said it was working through recommendations made by the auditor to ensure similar errors would not occur in the future.

A spokesman said: "The independent audit was requested to review the payment processes currently in place once the potential for error was identified.

"Skanska assisted in this audit process. Reviewing and challenging any established process is good practice.

"We have a series of seven recommendations suggested by the auditors. Work streams have commenced in collaboration with Skanska to implement the recommendations.

"If our investigations uncover evidence of overpayments or underpayments in future, there are mechanisms within the contract to ensure these are paid or repaid in full.

"We continue to work closely with Skanska. We both recognise the importance of having robust payment systems and are also committed to ensuring the SWAP audit recommendations are fully implemented for the future."


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