Increased private control for AECC board

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 CN, 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 very
defensive of some of the criticism on the report,” he told CN.
“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.”

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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