The Wokingham Paper

Lib Dems concerned over the level of council debts

Wokingham Borough Council offices shute end
Wokingham Borough Council

“We are concerned that cuts in services may have to be made just at a time when they are needed more than ever.”

That’s the warning from the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who said that the coronavirus pandemic would mean that the council will be experiencing a significant drop in revenue, together with increasing costs. 

Cllr Lindsay Ferris made the comments during an online meeting of Wokingham Borough Council on Tuesday, June 16.

“We have been warning the Conservative Ruling Group since 2017 about the levels of borrowing and debt that this Council has been racking up,” he said. 

“Back then the debt was around £350 million but now, three years later, this figure has risen to close on £700 million. 

“The Council has signed Contracts committing it to paying out irrespectively, even in circumstances, which have now transpired, where the projected income to cover the costs committed to may either be delayed, or even significantly reduced, leaving the Council short of money. 

“This foolhardy action is likely to have exposed the Council to some very serious future financial problems 

“As a result of our warnings about this financial mismanagement having been totally ignored the Council now has a lot less resilience to bounce back from the challenges presented by the pandemic.”

Cllr Ferris added: “We can see the finances of this Council being stretched week by week as this crisis continues.”

As this was a leaders’ speech, it was not debated in the meeting.

However, Cllr Guy Grandison asked Cllr John Kaiser, the executive member for finance and housing, for an update on the council’s finances in light of the pandemic. 

In a written reply, Cllr Kaiser conceded that the virus had had an effect on the council’s finances. 

“We have received grant funding from central Government, but through careful monitoring and tracking of the expenditure related to our response to the pandemic, it is currently estimated that nearly £5m of the general fund balance (our reserve) will be required unless more funding is provided. This means that the general fund balance will be virtually wiped out in the year 2020/21.”

And he said that all local authorities (councils) were facing the same pressures, with the Local Government Authority warning that there is currently an £11 billion underfunding. 

“The real crux is future finance settlements and how long/deep the inevitable recession is likely to be,” he warned, saying that the council is well-placed, with a reasonably well-off population “that will probably be able to ride-out the worst of the recession”. 

But, he warned: “There are many unknowns”. 

“The job of the Council is to ensure we are best placed to support our residents and businesses through the recession (particularly the most vulnerable) and also still be around as a viable Council for the foreseeable future. This may mean some difficult decisions in the future around levels of taxation and provision of services.”

Cllr Ferris also took a moment to praise the work of the Community Hub that has helped vulnerable residents was praised by the leader of the Wokingham Liberal Democrats. 

Cllr Ferris thanked “officers, fellow Councillors of all persuasions and local residents’ schools, businesses and other organisations who have helped with the Community Hub based at St Crispin’s School. This has been invaluable work by all involved.”

And there was more praise for the council’s work during the coronavirus pandemic.

Cllr Ferris added: “Another achievement that the Council deserves praise for is the work done in developing a Social Services protocol to prevent patients from being discharged from our local hospitals into Care Homes until it was clear that they did not have the dreadful virus. This action, in our view, saved many lives and should be applauded.

“We understand that other Councils across the Country have now followed suit but WBC took a lead on this and action was taken nearly a fortnight before the Government acted.”

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