Increased private control for AECC board

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Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre (AECC) MD, Brian Horsburgh, has hit back at claims that council control of the venue is weak and lacks accountability, after an internal audit criticised its management practices.The audit was conducted by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and followed the AECC’s decision to postpone constructing a new hotel on the site. As previously reported in EN, the Council deemed the financial package for the proposed hotel too risky, leading to £2.3m in public funds being written off. The auditors claimed monitoring of the hotel project by the AECC saw only £1m of the £2.3m spent approved by the directors.“The audit people have taken a very narrow view that there wasn’t an explicit direction to spend that amount of money, when we were just instructed to advance the project,” said Horsburgh. “The board of the AECC have been fully-informed of the hotel project the whole way through.”To date, the AECC has functioned like a private organisation, but the recent audit’s criteria were more appropriate to a public body, and therefore negative results were inevitable, Horsburgh said.“We certainly are defensive of some of the criticism on the report,” he told EN. “We’re not a local authority and that’s not how we operate. They can’t criticise us for not doing something we were never instructed to do.”The AECC’s board is now undergoing a restructure, which will see more power handed to the private sector. The overhaul of the board was planned previously but driven forward as a result of the failed hotel bid.Board chairman and Council representative Neil Fletcher will step down next month in favour of independent director and board member Ed Gillespie. Three more non-Council board members will come from the private sector, bringing the total number of independent members to seven out of 12.Despite the increase, Horsburgh expressed concern the Council could decide to take back control of the board.“A year down the line, if they decide they don’t want us as a limited company, this would remove our flexibility as a commercial operation,” he claimed. “There would be a much greater level of bureaucracy and a longer decision-making chain, which would make us less able to respond to the market.”Horsburgh claimed other venues supported by local governments will be similarly affected as Councils clamp down on expenditure. “They are looking at every penny being spent, and anything not labelled absolutely core function is coming under scrutiny,” he said. “We are watching with great interest how other cities respond.”
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