The Wokingham Paper

Wokingham Borough Council’s debt level is £700 million and ‘too high’ warns Lib Dems

Wokingham Borough Council offices shute end

THE AMOUNT that Wokingham Borough Council is borrowing was a concern raised by opposition councillors at a virtual meeting of Wokingham Borough Council.

Held online on Thursday, September 17, the chamber was discussing the Treasury Management Outturn report for the 2019-20 financial year.

Cllr Rachel Burgess, the Labour member for Norreys ward, said that the council’s treasury outturn report showed that the council would have a “high level of debt for much longer than was presented (in the report)”.

“It’s disappointing that even in the commentary for the forward-looking elements there is not even one reference to Covid-19 and the potential impact on these forward-looking figures,” she said, adding: “I would also take issue with the presentation of £5m expenditure last year labelled ‘climate emergency’ – as we have seen, a lot of this expenditure overall is rebadged from other budgets so the presentation of this expenditure is arguably misleading.”

And Cllr Clive Jones, deputy leader Wokingham Liberal Democrats, said that the party had “very serious concerns” particularly over borrowing more to spend on “speculative commercial property ventures” and warned that the £700 million debt level wasn’t down to the pandemic.

“Here in Wokingham it’s the Conservative administrations of the past few years that have inflicted most damage on our Councils finances. Debt of £700million is too high,” he added.

He argued that councils, both parish and borough, were still waiting to hear what support they would receive from the government.

“At an overview and scrutiny meeting (Woodley Town Council leader) Keith Baker said that the hit Woodley has to take could be up to £1m. If this is right surely they need some support.”

Cllr Imogen Shepherd-Dubey, Lib Dem Emmbrook Ward, was next to speak, and said that “the level of debt that this council has created for itself is a serious concern.

“Combined with the necessary consumption of our reserves, it leaves us unprotected in an uncertain world and builds up problems for the future. According to this report, up until March 2020 we had externally borrowed £279m – which works out at £1,650 per man, woman and child living the Borough.”

She wanted to know how useful the report would be to the council now.

Cllr Stuart Munro said that the Lib Dems comments on commercial developments were “nonsense … I cannot agree with what you said”.

This was echoed by Cllr John Halsall, who said that at a recent executive the Lib Dems said the council should not reduce capital spend, but on this report on what had been spent, “the opposition said the spend was too high” and that the opposition “was unable to read the report or understand it, and that is mind boggling.

“I’m not really sure what it is that you’re talking about, and a lot of illiteracy.”

Cllr Prue Bray said she wanted to correct Cllr Halsall, saying that the party wanted better information, “I really think that trying to opposition on false grounds is not becoming of you John and you should not have done it”.

The report had been presented by Cllr Daniel Sargeant, the deputy executive member for finance.

He said that many councillors had misunderstood the report, saying that while Covid would affect the future figures, it wasn’t within the scope of this report.

And he called on councillors to specify which bit of the report they would change.

The report was carried by a vote.

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