The Wokingham Paper

Wokingham Council reported to Government over debt level fears

Wokingham borough council

THE COUNCIL’S financial picture has concerned the leader of the Liberal Democrats so much that he has written to the Secretary of State for Local Government.

At the last council meeting, held on September 20, Cllr Lindsay Ferris told the chamber: “We can see the level of forecast debt increasing from £273 million to £450 million this financial year to near £600 million next year.

“This means there will be increasing pressure on the council to provide its basic services such as waste collection, highways and the like. At some point we feel this pressure will become too large for the council to deliver these and other services.

“At the moment we have no executive or deputy executive member for finance as both these members resigned these past weeks.

“Who is in charge of our finances?” he asked, adding that his letter to James Brokenshire MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, was to “formally advise him in our concerns about how the council is currently being managed, with its increasing levels of borrowing and without a clear direction to deal with these problems.

“We are extremely worried the direction this Conservative administration is taking us.

Cllr Ferris added: “The council is now behaving like someone who has a number of credit cards and spends up to the limit on each of these cards.

“The limit is then increased again and again so that the level of authorised spending (or debt) keeps increasing year-on-year. This is unsustainable and will surely end in tears.”

After the meeting, he told The Wokingham Paper that the party felt it was difficult to full understand the council’s financial position because “you have you plough through one document to another to understand the finances. It shouldn’t be the case”.

“As I said in council, the way in which the council is spending money is like it’s maxing out the credit cards, but the council has overall control over what the maximum should be. It’s exceedingly concerning.

“There’s an indication that we’re on a slippery slope here. It’s not in a hunky dory position:  for our reserves to be halved in such as short space of time is unbelievable.

“We also have the negative support grant on the horizon.”

But the leader of the council defended the council’s financial position and the way in which the Conservative Executive is managing the finances.

It is currently without an Executive member for finance after Cllr Julian McGhee-Sumner resigned at the beginning of the month. No replacement has yet been announced for him.

Cllr Charlotte Haitham Taylor told The Wokingham Paper: “This is a difficult time for local councils across the country, but thanks to Conservative management, Wokingham Borough has weathered it better than most.

“We believe that it is important to invest in infrastructure such as roads, schools and leisure centres to serve the growing population in the Borough.

“In order to provide facilities in advance of the housing development we have been targeted to provide by Central Government, we borrow money from the Government at very low interest rates, this is then paid back from contributions from housing developers and our income-generating assets.

“The level of borrowing is a natural result of the level of development in the Borough, and our income generation will help pay for local services.

“Unlike our neighbouring councils, we are building and opening more facilities for our residents, rather than cutting them.

“If the Liberal Democrats are saying that they wouldn’t borrow money at the safe levels that we are doing, they need to answer how else they would invest in resources and facilities that benefit local communities.

“The Opposition could cut expenditure on services or choose not to invest in communities, leaving local people with facilities and assets that will deteriorate and potentially need to close – as witnessed by the lack of investment by them in the Bulmershe Leisure Centre in Woodley when they ran the Town Council.

“Local residents should be in no doubt what a Liberal Democrat-run Council could potentially mean: crumbling, dangerous sports centres as they fail to invest in leisure facilities overcrowded classrooms as they fail to invest in new schools; and roads jammed with traffic as they fail to invest in highways.”

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