"We want it all out in the open, good or bad" - new administration 'just coming to terms' with Central Beds Council's financial situation

But former council leader says the Independents “do not understand” council finances
Central Bedfordshire Council Chicksands HQCentral Bedfordshire Council Chicksands HQ
Central Bedfordshire Council Chicksands HQ

Central Bedfordshire Council’s Independent-led administration has said it is “just beginning to come to terms” with the financial “situation” it has inherited since May’s local elections.

Council leader, councillor Adam Zerny (Potton) told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS): “For many years the vast majority of Central Beds councillors were Conservative and as result what we questioned was ignored. Unfortunately, this is what you get when you have a single party state.”

“Now though, for the first time we have an Independent administration and we are questioning everything. We want it all out in the open, good or bad.”

But the former leader of the council, councillor Richard Wenham (Conservative, Clifton, Henlow and Langford) told the LDRS that the Independents “do not understand” council finances, and that his administration had a “balanced budget”.

Councillor Zerny wrote on his Facebook page that the first thing the new administration learnt was that existing plans allowed for a £9m deficit between what the council proposes to spend, and where it has the income to pay for it.

“The only way of meeting the gap is to take that money from the council’s reserves,” he wrote.

He added that the previous administration had also planned to “massively expand” its borrowing.

“Essentially paying for important amenities on [sic] the hope of future uncertain income. This plan would see debt rise from £400 million to £856 million in just five years,” his Facebook post claimed.

It went on to say: “We believe this is unsustainable, what’s more such an increase in debt would pass huge problems back to the revenue budget as high interest repayments would reduce the amount of money available to run the council.”

“All too often decisions are made in local authorities that benefit only political parties,” councillor Zerny told the LDRS.

“But we want to make sure that any financial decisions we make are with residents in mind.

“If tough decisions need to be made, we must try to understand what the impact would be on the public,” he said.

Councillor Wenham told the LDRS that questions were always answered, but the Independents were “noticeable by their absence” during scrutiny and executive meetings.

“We always planned some increase in borrowing but offset [that] by some asset sales,” he said.

“[It is] very important to continue to invest in the future of our growing area. Central Bedfordshire would have retained low borrowing costs as a percentage of the revenue budget compared to most councils. [An] approach agreed by the chief finance officer.

“We have always made decisions for the benefit of all residents, unlike the Independent’s callous cancellation of schools for the future causing huge anxiety to children, parents and teachers,” he said.

Councillor Hayley Whitaker, deputy leader and executive member for children’s services, said: “These major issues over the capital budget are a significant part of the reasoning for why we had to put the Schools for the Future programme on hold.

“There was just no way we could commit schools to an expansion programme for which there wasn’t a detailed financial plan.

“We are working with officers to restart the programme in the autumn on a firmer financial footing,” the Independent ward councillor for Biggleswade West said.