VIEWPOINTS: Our alternative budget for the borough

By Lindsay Ferris, leader of Wokingham's Liberal Democrats

Last Thursday, as Leader of the Liberal Democrats I had the privilege of submitting a fully costed Amendment as an alternative to the ruling Groups Budget.

As has been the norm for many years, the opposition was only shown the Budget a few days before the public.

We had however been working for several months on a number of areas that residents have told us were important to them. All the Lib Dem proposals were discussed and agreed with the appropriate officers at Wokingham Borough Council, including the finance Department.

The first area I addressed concerned the threat of the many thousands of houses projected for our Borough over the next 20 years.

We feel this figure is far too high and that the ruling Conservative Group has not lobbied hard enough to get this figure (currently projected to be close to 18,000 over this period) significantly reduced.

This level of building would destroy the character and environment of our area for ever and lead to gridlock.

We have in response launched a Government Petition against these houses. The link to the petition is https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/237564 – It is titled ‘Keep housing numbers under control in already heavily developed areas’.

I enthuse you to sign this petition.

Last year the Conservatives closed down the School Crossing Patrol Service despite objections from local parents, residents and schools. We would have reintroduced this service at schools where the parents, residents and School clearly indicate they wish this to happen. The safety of our Children comes first.

We would have introduced Free 2 Hours Parking in our Town Centres on Saturdays. It is vital, with so much uncertainty to assist our High Street businesses. We need to encourage visitors to our High Street, especially Wokingham following all the upheaval that has occurred these past couple of years.

To assist leisure we would have introduced Free Parking at Dinton Pastures and California Park on Bank Holidays and after 6pm.

Many residents have told us that the condition of their roads and pavements are in a poor state. We would have provided an additional £300k this year to enable more roads and pavements to be repaired.

There have been a large number of temporary/ interim staff employed at WBC over the last couple of years. This coincided with the 21st Century programme which has changed the way the Council interfaces with the Public. These staff have been costly to employ, plus has caused significant disruption. We would have cut the available budget for these posts by £500k this year. It does not make sense to employ expensive temporary staff unless you have to.

Children’s Services at Wokingham  needs rebuilding as a result of so many interim staff. Two areas would have received additional support – one that helps Children with mental health issues (called CAMHS) and one that assists Children with special needs.

We would have cut the Council’s so called Commercial Borrowing Fund from £100 million to

£25 million. This is where the Council borrows money to buy Commercial Properties with the hope of making a financial return.

Throughout the country, councils who invested in commercial properties, especially those on the High Street are selling up, having had their fingers burnt. So what is Wokingham doing – investing now!

Commercial properties values are now falling, with many buildings empty. In some places the current company leasing the buildings have indicated that rents are too high and need to be reduced, otherwise they may close, or move. So this is a very risky business.

Our objection is that this is not their money, it is ours (the Council Tax Payers money), so it is you that will be taking the risk, not them.

Any projected income is purely speculation and any income needs to take account of future rent levels, management costs, building repairs and also occupancy rates. We do not believe it is the role of the Council to be a speculator.

Our action would have cut the Council’s borrowing level (or debt) by £75 million. Remember the interest and other costs could fall on you the council tax payer.

We would have managed to provide these additional services without changing the Council Tax rate proposed. We would have used about £1.2 million of reserves, so that the Council’s reserve would have been £8.7 million instead of £9.9 million as under the Conservatives. (Last year the reserves fell to £5.6 million – so we would have still been prudent and added over £3 million to reserves to cover future requirements.)

On an issue that it close to myself, we would have included an additional capital spend of £400,000 this year, followed by a spend of £600,000 next year to cover the costs of providing a new Library and Community Hub in Twyford.

All of this has been lost as the ruling Conservatives did not even discuss the issues properly just made hysterical comments and the classic “Not invented here” response.

From our perspective if an idea is a good one, irrespective of who proposes it, we would assess and if found practical would introduce such an idea. No single Party has all the ideas.

To us it shows that the Conservatives are disinterested in the majority of what any one else, including residents want, only themselves.

Cllr Lindsay Ferris Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Leader of the Opposition on Wokingham Borough Council and Member for Twyford

Tony Johnson is away

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