Council chiefs were criticised for the internal selection of their top officer – by the watchdog now headed up by North Ayrshire’s former boss.

Recommendations from a review into council value were considered in private by Scotland's Accounts Commission, which we previously reported is now chaired by former chief executive Elma Murray, when it met last month.

While stating services have improved over the last five years, Audit Scotland's Best Value report into North Ayrshire Council criticised the appointment process of Ms Murray’s predecessor Craig Hatton after her retirement was announced.

It added that the local authority must “focus on areas of poorer performance, most notably a recent decline in education” and also emphasising cuts of £19million to be made.

However The Accounts Commission confirmed North Ayrshire's former top civil servant had no part in the production of the report and Ms Murray 'left the meeting prior to the discussions about this and the recruitment issue'.

The report states: “While we acknowledge the effectiveness of the executive leadership team of officers, we note the lack of external competition in the recruitment of the new chief executive in late 2018.

“We reiterate our position that public confidence is best served when recruitment of chief officers is subject to external competition.”

The Times previously reported how Independent and Tory councillors had also complained of not being allowed back onto the staffing and recruitment committee to choose the next chief executive after Elma Murray’s retirement was announced.

We revealed how several councillors previously resigned from that committee over the selection of another senior officer when the usual points-based system for choosing was changed for a show of hands – resulting in a different candidate getting the job.

Conservative Group leader Cllr Marshall said at the time: “The Conservative group are disappointed to be excluded from the staffing and recruitment committee particularly in view of the appointment of the new chief executive. It means one third of the council are not represented and there was no reason why the timetable could not be adjusted.

“This might call in to question the confidence we would have in the new chief executive.”

However, the mainly positive report also stated the council has “effective leadership, and has strong links with its partners. The council enables and works well with local communities. Staff are empowered to make changes that improve service delivery.”

Chief executive Craig Hatton said: “We’re delighted with the report - it’s a reflection of the effort and hard work put in by staff.

“I’m really pleased that it recognises the close working between council officials, our elected members and our communities to deliver real and meaningful improvements. The report also highlights the continuous improvement of the council over recent years and that impetus is something we cannot lose.

“We will also fully take on board the recommendations made by the Accounts Commission as we continue on this journey of transformation.”

Council leader Joe Cullinane said: “It’s pleasing that the report recognises the work the council is doing to ensure our communities are a key part of how we deliver services.”