CONCERNS about the ‘fundamental weaknesses’ of financial management at the Dorset Waste Partnership were raised as early as 2012, a report has revealed – more than two years before the director was sacked.

Steve Burdis was suspended from his role as head of the DWP in March 2015, when an urgent investigation was launched into how the authority had run up an overspend of £2.8m. It was also claimed that DWP illegally hired vehicles to the value of £1.5m without a proper tendering process.

Mr Burdis was later sacked by Dorset County Council, DWP’s host authority. He appealed against the decision, but his complaint of unfair dismissal was thrown out by a judge at an employment tribunal this summer. The report on the tribunal is due to be published imminently – but a copy has been passed to the Dorset Echo.

Naomi Cunningham, representing Mr Burdis at the tribunal, said the former director was made a ‘scapegoat’, adding that there was ‘no proper basis for suspension…other than as a public relations exercise’. An investigation led by Bryony Houlden, chief executive of South West Councils, in 2015 did not consider ‘the possibility that anyone else could have shared the blame’, Miss Cunningham said.

But setting out his reasons for dismissing Mr Burdis’s appeal, Employment Judge Kolanko (CORR) noted that the DWP director job description stated ‘the director [of DWP] has ultimate responsibility for the delivery of the services delegated to the partnership and for the control and effective use of the assets available’.

He added: “It is common ground that the rolling out of DWP was seen as a success in terms of the actual waste management, and I was informed was seen as a model example for other authorities. It is acknowledged that the claimant was credited with this success.”

But cracks started to appear financially soon after the DWP – for which funding is shared by all of Dorset’s local authorities – was launched.

The notes of Mrs Houlden’s investigation in 2015, summarised by Judge Kolanko, reveal that DWP head of strategy and commissioning Bill Davidson (BD) was ‘very surprised’ to find there were no systems in place to monitor financial matters when he took on the role. Mr Davidson presented a number of ideas to set up ‘appropriate arrangements’ but said Mr Burdis 'glared' at him in a manner that was ‘unfortunately, like being ticked off by the headmaster’. The notes also show that Mike Bell, former interim head of operations, had similar concerns. 

“When he (MB) joined in September 2012 he started to say much the same things as BD about the vital importance of getting to grips with these fundamental weaknesses…there was a sense in which he believed that while he and BD understood the absolute importance of the effective financial reporting budgetary control SB and the county council did not really get it.”

In October 2013, Karen Andrews, head of procurement, and Peter Illsley, head of corporate finance and DWP treasurer, separately emailed Mr Burdis raising concerns about the high level of spending.

Judge Kolanko stated in the report that, in October 2013, the DWP budget was set, taking into account that the organisation would need to purchase and service new vehicles. But by January 2014 Mr Burdis had not determined what vehicles were needed, and until a decision was made, he decided to hire the vehicles. There was ‘no costing exercise’, the report states, and while Mr Burdis believed this would be a ‘temporary measure’, the additional costs of hiring the vehicles continued until April 2016, when his employment at DWP ended.

The report also heard evidence that two contractors were engaged on a £1.5m contract without a tendering process – which contravenes DWP procedures and EU legislation.

Mrs Houlden told the tribunal there was ‘no excuse’ for failing to monitor spending, and that the substantial overspend appeared to come as a ‘complete surprise’ to Mr Burdis. But while she said the ‘primary accountability’ lies with Mr Burdis, Judge Kolanko noted in his report that Mrs Houlden ‘acknowledged that financial services and the host authority must share some of the responsibility’.

Peter Doughty, on behalf of Dorset County Council, told the tribunal: “Put in simple terms, how could someone who had made a complete mess of the financial management of DWP in such a fundamental way be trusted to run it properly in the future?”

Summarising his conclusion, Judge Kolanko said Mr Burdis had ‘primary responsibility’ for DWP finances and that the failure of not putting in place proper checks was ‘sufficiently serious to conclude that this constituted serious misconduct’. He added: “I am wholly satisfied that the sanction of dismissal fell well within the band of reasonable responses.” 

Dorset County Council said they were unable to comment.