The Wokingham Paper

Council’s debt level is NOT £700 million says leader … but Lib Dems disagree

Wokingham Borough Council offices shute end

IS THE council’s debt level £700 million? 

That was a question posed by Cllr Graham Howe to council leader Cllr John Halsall during the virtual meeting of Wokingham Borough Council on Thursday, November 19. 

Cllr Howe said: “The Leader of the Opposition has recently been sending a leaflet to homes across  the Borough claiming that the Council’s debt is £700 million. Could the Leader of the  Council set out what our debt situation actually is, including where borrowing is generating revenue income to pay for our vital services?”

Cllr Halsall said that he had been “shocked and distraught that such alarming and incredulous mistruths are being infiltrated across our community, especially at a time it is so important we demonstrate calm and assured leadership to engender assurance and confidence in the work of our Council.”

He added: “The figure in (the Lib Dem’s) statement is overstated by at least £376 million if I  wanted to be generous, but in reality, the true measure of his overstatement is £617million.

“(It) goes on to state that our borrowing activities are costing our Council Taxpayers (or households) £10,000 each. Turning again to the facts contained in the mid-year treasury management report, our CFO says that the financial impact on  Council taxpayers is not £10,000 per Council taxpayer but is in fact £7.52 for a Band D payer. 

“This is an incredulous overstatement … of 133,000%.”

He added: “Against our net indebtedness figure of £83m we have realisable assets currently valued at just under £500m or just under £200m if we take the narrowest focus of purely commercial assets”.

In a statement shared after the question was asked, Cllr Lindsay Ferris, the leader of Wokingham Borough Council’s Liberal Democrat group, said that he first raised the issue of debt in February 2017. 

“The figure of £700 million mentioned in the Question (from Cllr Howe) is derived from Wokingham Borough Council’s own Medium Term Financial Plan (MTFP), dated Feb ruary 2020.

“The table on page 84 shows the projected levels of both External & Internal Borrowing scheduled for the Council over the coming years. The combination of these two figures is the total borrowing projected by the Council and therefore its borrowing level.

“It is hurtling towards £700 million – the exact figure is £676.8 million.

He added: “We believe the Ruling Conservatives have been deficient in looking after the finances of WBC.  

“While the Council may have been able to manage to make payments during a time the economy was doing well, it has major problems now that we are in the middle of a major recession due to the Covid-19 Pandemic.

“Currently, the major revenue streams for WBC – Council Tax, Business Rates, Commercial Rents, Car Parking Revenue, Leisure income – are all badly hit.

“While the Government is providing some monies to support the Council to cover the costs of Covid-19 it is not enough to cover all the additional costs and loss of revenue. This makes our concern about rapidly rising levels of borrowing, and the cost of financing that debt, even more significant.

“Should we be privileged to take control of Wokingham Borough Council next May, we will control, consolidate, and in time cut the levels of borrowing and ensure the Council’s finances are brought onto a more even keel.”

We are expecting more from Cllr John Halsall as the meeting progresses.

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