SUCCESSFUL INVESTMENTS, MORE MONEY FOR BETTER SERVICES, NEW SCHOOLS, ROADS AND OTHER CAPITAL PROJECTS
Wokingham Borough Council is set to agree a balanced budget, along with just under half a billion pounds worth of investment in capital projects (over three years), at its meeting tonight (18 February 2021), despite an uncertain financial future with no guarantee on future government funding.
The council remains the lowest funded unitary authority in England. But thanks to the Conservative council’s approach to its all-round financial management arrangements, including commercial investments that are generating good returns, it is in a much better position than many other local authorities around the country.
The council, which will be investing to improve services in the coming financial year, is also set to invest:
- Roads and transport: £160million including construction of new park and rides, Nine Mile Ride extension, Highways Investment Strategy, flood alleviation schemes, and traffic signal upgrade programme
- Housing, local economy and regeneration: £156million including Gorse Ride estate redevelopment, Phase 2 Grovelands in Winnersh, and Gypsy, Roma, Traveller additional pitches
- Climate emergency: £71million including developing solar farms to create a renewable energy infrastructure and energy reduction projects at existing properties to make them energy efficient (e.g., LED lighting, cavity walls). It also includes managing congestion by improving traffic flow and reducing incidents which cause delays (including using CCTV cameras)
- Environment: £23million including refurbishment of leisure facilities, play area enhancement projects, and Carnival Pool area redevelopment
Internal services: £13million including upgrades to IT and telephony and cyber security improvements
- Children services and schools: £12million including new schools (Arborfield Primary, Matthews Green Primary, and new Special Educational Needs at Winnersh Farm), maintenance of school buildings, and ICT equipment for children in care
- Adult social care: £11million including new dementia home, community equipment, Learning Disability respite centre, and supported living accommodation
The Conservative council’s strong and sound financial position has allowed the borough council to step up and support the community during the Covid-19 pandemic. The council’s finances have faced significant challenges as a result of the pandemic and it is likely to have longer lasting implications.
However, the council was able to react quickly and provide much needed Personal Protective Equipment to care homes and social care staff as well as continued support to the voluntary and community organisations throughout the pandemic.
Wokingham Borough has also been ahead of the game in terms of setting up rapid testing centres for key workers allowing them to access regular lateral flow tests and it has also given practical support for the NHS’ vaccination roll-out such as providing buildings, marshals, parking and staff. The council has led a successful contact tracing programme in the borough, made hardship payments to individuals and businesses hit by the pandemic and provided free school meals.
In addition to the ambitious capital programme, the ongoing revenue budget is also set to be considered by council on 18 February. The vast majority goes on statutory services to support vulnerable adults and children. Of the annual £147million revenue budget some 60% goes to adult social care and wellbeing and children’s social care and safeguarding. It also provides a significant amount for the day-to-day services residents rely on such as collecting waste and recycling and maintaining roads and paths.
The budget sets out how the council will continue to invest to generate long-term revenue support for services. Successful investments based on borrowing are generating income as well as providing benefits for the community, which is good news for the borough’s residents. A large proportion of council borrowing is deemed as “supported” borrowing which means that these schemes more than pay for themselves, therefore the cost of borrowing does not impact on the council taxpayer.
Wokingham Borough Council is a commercially-minded authority that continually seeks to ensure its money is spent as wisely as possible, and being innovative where necessary to get the best value for money. Without taking this approach, the council would be facing an even more stark financial future. Projects such as Wokingham town centre regeneration and building new social housing all generate money. Significant investment has been made to regenerate Wokingham town centre and the scheme has now moved into a positive financial position - with income from rents now exceeding the cost of borrowing.
The council is often asked what it costs to borrow money. When calculating this figure it is also important to consider the income that is generated through our borrowing activities. Taking this into account the cumulative financial impact on the council for its borrowing equates to a net benefit for the taxpayer per Band D of £13.64 at the end of 2021/22. This income is then ploughed back into local services.
Cllr John Kaiser, executive member for finance and housing, said: “Heading into 2021/2022, I’m pleased to say the financial standing of the council is robust. This has been achieved through good financial management and we have built up financial resilience and sustainability, despite years of austerity from central government funding. This strong financial management has allowed us to meet demands whilst also maintaining prudent reserves. It has been a challenging year and the Coronavirus pandemic brought extra pressures that we weren’t expecting but we rose to the challenge to support our communities.
“Our financial future is uncertain and we will continue to make representation to government for additional funding which is only fair for our residents.
Leader of the council John Halsall said: “This budget focuses on the things our taxpayers care about such as improving roads, reducing congestion and tackling the climate emergency, as well as investing in schools and leisure facilities. We are significantly investing in our priorities and we will not make any cuts to services, unlike many other authorities around the county.”
The proposed budget is based on a general council tax increase of 1.99% and a social care precept levy of 3%.
Full details of the proposals are included in the agenda papers for the council meeting and can be found at: www.wokingham.gov.uk/council-and-meetings.
After the meeting you will also be able to view a video: Wokingham Borough Council 2021/22 Budget on WBC's YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/wokinghamBC