WOKINGHAM’S finances are “in extremely good health”.
That’s the message from council leader John Halsall, who was addressing concerns raised by opposition parties over the management of residents’ money.
He made the comments in a leader’s speech devoted solely to the issue during a virtual meeting of Wokingham Borough Council, held on Thursday, November 19.
“I consider it is a matter of extreme importance that our finances are well-managed and just as important, that the actual state of our finances are properly understood by Council and by our residents,” he said.
“If the public has no confidence in our financial management, they have no confidence in the Council and the loss of confidence in this Council at such a crucial time in our history would be disastrous.”
Cllr Halsall criticised “cheap political headlines” and the “proffering of alarmist messages and pervasive political propaganda intended to mislead”.
He said that despite the problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the council is not following the path of others that have made “claims of insolvency or mass draconian service and staff cuts”.
“Our financial strength and financial standing is not something that has materialised overnight,” he continued.
“In 2002 we, the Conservatives, inherited what can only be described as a financial crisis following a period of mismanagement by the Liberal Democrats.
“We had perilous balances at only £2.3 million, an uncontrolled overspend of £1 million and had to act quickly to arrest a genuine fatal decline into insolvency.”
Over the past 18 years, the Conservatives had, he said, “been devoted to restoring, maintaining and enhancing this Council’s financial wellbeing”.
“We were financially strong and resilient coming into this Covid-19 and that was despite years of austerity from 2008, when we faced continual escalating statutory care costs and severe reductions in Government funding,” Cllr Halsall said.
“It is this financial resilience that has enabled us to step up in the ways we have needed to for our community throughout this pandemic.
“This is not just me making fanciful misleading statements in the way that some have chosen to do. This is our financial track record and financial health is based on facts and on the reports of external experts.”
The council’s investments were generating £7.2 million per annum “a not inconsiderable sum” according to the council leader.
“Because of that income, all of the borrowing the Council has ever had to make to deliver on all our capital schemes since Wokingham Borough Council has existed such as roads, schools, affordable housing, regeneration, is of almost no cost to our Council Taxpayer.
“Well, £7.52 for a Band D to be precise.
“What’s more, we have accumulated realisable assets of almost £500 million.”
The theme was picked up on by Cllr John Kaiser, the deputy leader of the council and also in charge of the finances.
“It has been frustrating listening to the lies and rumours about the council’s finances during this time when people have many fears, illness, loss of jobs and income and in some cases deterioration of mental wellbeing,” he said.
“Families have been unable to meet with the most at risk such as grandparents.
“Statements to scaremonger at such a time is not only irresponsible but lacking any sense of feelings or respect for all those who benefit and rely on the many services delivered by Wokingham Borough Council.
“Rest assured my intention is to run the councils finances in such a way creates savings and investments which make available money so when we get back to normal, whatever that will look like, the council will still be in a position to deliver those services at the same time having supported the resident of the borough throughout this very difficult and challenging time.”
He added: “All of this has been going on at a time that key income to the Council has dried up, most notably leisure and car parking and we have been diverted away from delivering on savings initiatives.
“I have found this extremely challenging, to ensure the needs of our vulnerable are met and trying to manage the council’s resources responsibly.”
And the borrowing “has provided income critical to funding our response”
“We have always borrowed sensibly and continue to do so,” Cllr Kaiser said. “We have used this to generate income and continue to have assets far in excess in value than our borrowing liabilities.”