A copy of Cllr Ann-Marie Barker’s budget statement presented to Council on Thursday 23 February 2023.
“In presenting a budget to you tonight I will set out how this Liberal Democrat administration is taking responsibility for recovery in this Council. I will share a little history, tell you what we have done in nine months, our ask for Council Tax this year and I will talk about a vision for the future of this borough with a successful Council working in partnership with thriving local communities.
Responsibility for recovery
“Liberal Democrats are taking responsibility for the debts this Council has amassed. We are not kicking debt into the long grass by borrowing more to pay off the borrowing. We are not holding up our hands and surrendering to the sheer enormity of it. We are not waiting for an economic recovery or a return to halcyon pre-Covid days. We are working with council officers, external support and government reviewers to get this super tanker turned around. We are taking responsibility for recovery.
“There are many difficult decisions along the way. Nobody wants to increase the costs that this Council charges. Nobody wants to provide a lesser service to local people. Nobody wants to reduce the support to local groups. But these are the decisions we have to make.
“We have to make these decisions to set a balanced budget for the year ahead. We have to make these decisions for the medium term. We have to make these decisions and more, because what is set out before you this evening is not the end of the story. It is just another step in Operation Recovery. Our next steps could be much, much worse.
“The borough of Woking came into being in September 1974. In the 49 years since then the Conservative party has run, or had a part in running the Council for 46 of those years. Most relevant to our current situation is that the Conservatives have been the administration of this Council for the last 10 years. In that time they have availed the Council liberally of borrowing from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB).
“The PWLB has been around for many years but during David Cameron’s tenure as Prime Minister it became the go-to funder for local authorities. Woking, like many Councils, had good intentions, borrow money to invest in local property and bring in income to fill the gap of falling government funding and use government money for regeneration.
"Woking went too far on this. PWLB handed out money with minimal scrutiny.
The modern history – last nine months
“That brings me to the very modern history of Woking. Since taking over in May , the first non-Conservative control of the Council in 15 years, we have been able, over less than nine months, to achieve much.
“We held an extensive consultation on a town centre masterplan. Local people were able to attend events in their area, visit a town centre shop, view details online or take part in an online consultation session. This was all funded either by money agreed by this Council prior to us taking control or with grant funding.
“Sadly national intervention has impacted our local masterplan. First, a government inspector allowed the Crown Place development to pass on appeal. This despite local refusal and an agreement with this refusal by a previous planning inspector. Few would object to new homes on the site of the former HG Wells [Conference and events Centre] and Big Apple. What did raise objections was the excessive height, something the masterplan seeks to tackle.
“Second, those who saw the masterplan might stop them building to excessive heights, objected to it, suggesting they might resort to legal avenues.
“These two blows mean we are not as far progressed as we had hoped with the masterplan, but in just nine months we have come a long way. The consultation has made clear, what those of us who are in regular dialogue with local people, whether that be on doorsteps, at community meetings, in shops or village centres or online, had heard for many, many months, that excessive heights in the town centre are not acceptable. We will continue our work on the masterplan in the year ahead.
“A carbon assessment of the Council, and wholly owned companies, has been completed. This gives us a clear basis to move forward and achieve net zero, first for the Council and then for the wider borough. The Greener Woking working group has done much to move forward and I am grateful for the input of WEAct who continue to push us as we tread our path to net zero.
“We have removed the conflict of interest created by councillors serving as Directors on company boards. Scrutiny of companies is now through a shareholder advisory model, as recommended by CIPFA.
“The Executive, joined by the Chair of Overview and Scrutiny, meet as the Shareholder Advisory Group. We are supported by the Shareholder Liaison Service and council officers. These meetings scrutinise business plans and communicate the views of the Council via shareholder direction and my role attending Board meetings as the Shareholder representative.
“Shareholder advisory group meetings have been held for Thameswey. Scrutiny of their business plans have led to adjustments to the original plans, which will be discussed later on this agenda.
“We have had an initial meeting on Victoria Square Woking Ltd. There is much work to do in order for a business plan to be presented and reviewed for this very complex business as we move from construction to operation phase.
“There is no longer a substantial ‘opportunities’ budget, which allowed land and property to be bought with little scrutiny and no business case.
“An open and transparent Council is paramount and we showed this in the only property sale we have carried out over the year. The main details were discussed in public. Only commercially confidential details were covered in a Part II private item.
“My Finance Portfolio Holder Cllr Roberts will talk in some detail about the work that has been done towards sustainable finances for the Council.
“For the year ahead, from April 2023 to March 2024, I am asking for your support to increase Woking’s share of Council Tax by 3%. Three percent is the level of increase the government expect borough councils such as Woking to make. Look across the country and you will find this is the typical level of increase.
“For Woking in particular, given our financial situation, we would be undoing all the work we have done in working towards improvement. I can’t see the government looking kindly on us not making the increase in Council Tax that they expect of us.
“Government funding is predicated on us increasing to the level they have set. In recent years government has continued to reduce funding to local authorities. Government has increasingly controlled local authority finance. From a government perspective a 3% increase is expected.“A 3% increase is also one of the elements that contributes to us achieving a balanced budget for the year ahead. Anything other than this increase takes away one of the contributors to a balanced budget. Freezing Council Tax, for example, would mean a balanced budget could not be set.
“It is important to point out that Woking Borough continues to take only a small share of the Council Tax that local people pay. The 3% increase I am asking you to agree tonight, maintains Woking’s share of local Council Tax at 12%. The average Band D property will pay £263.13 for the services provided by Woking Council. The Surrey Police and Crime Commissioner gets a bigger share 14% and will take £310.56 from you. Surrey County Council takes the greatest share 74% and £1,675.02.
“From that Woking Council collects your household waste, cleans the streets and open spaces, empties bins, cuts the grass, plants and maintains trees, provides playgrounds, pitches and pools, indoor and outdoor courts and gyms.
“It decides your planning applications, oversees developments, monitors local food premises, runs elections, supports local businesses, builds homes, provides meals on wheels, works with the health service to support hospital discharges, provides help to the women’s support centre, gives substantial funds to our excellent local Citizens Advice, the Bustler service for older and disabled residents.
“This comes at £5 a week for the average Band D property.
“To make this budget balance there have been difficult decisions to make. Nobody comes into local government to do less for local people. We have already put before Council increases in fees and charges. Service changes will be necessary.
“In the year ahead we will continue to deliver on the Woking For All strategy but our ambition will be constrained. We will be seeking innovative, new ways to deliver services, working even more in partnership with other authorities, public and private sector partners and our local communities.
“We have seen, through Covid and before just how much local people can deliver for their communities. Food banks, fridges, sports clubs, good neighbour services, litter picks, village shows are all organised so well by our local groups. We can build on and support this as a Council and I am determined that we are a council for all of Woking borough, from Byfleet in the east to Brookwood in the west. Sutton Green in the south to Woodham and Sheerwater in the north. I see Woking as a council that delivers good services in partnership with the local community.
“We will move forward at pace on a greener Woking, building on our relationships with local environmental groups. We are looking at how we can provide additional secure cycle parking, and have bid to South Western Railways for funds. We would like to work with local schools to involve young people in a greener Woking.
“We now have an asset management strategy and we are moving forward to ensure we get the most for the borough from the assets we own. Whether that is by bringing revenue into the Council from the retail and office space we own.
“The Victoria Arch plans are being assessed and I hope we can come forward with workable plans that provide better access for vehicles, people and cycles.
“The budget before you tonight is a key step in Operation Recovery. Come with us on the journey to turn the super tanker around and move us from a failing bank to a successful council."
Cllr Ann-Marie Barker
Leader of Woking Borough Council