The COVID pandemic has wreaked havoc on the Waverley’s finances – and with a £6.8m black hole. Only by making cuts and using £3m from its reserves can it balance the books.
With the unexpected hole in its finances officers and councillors have been burning the midnight oil in a bid to find sufficient savings to bridge the gap.
Despite receiving £1.1m Government money, the forced closure of Leisure Centres and other venues and most important the free for all in the borough’s car parks, Waverley Borough Council is not in a good place.
With a recruitment freeze already in place, saving £0.6m the authority hopes, there will be no redundancies. When a revised budget goes before the council in August more recently announced government grants might improve matters.
Finance Director Grahame Clark painted a grim picture at the Overview & Scrutiny Value for Money meeting recently.
Saying: “Although we are only four months into the financial year we are facing the biggest challenge since this council was formed.”
Cllr Mark Merryweather, Portfolio Holder for Finance, said the council was still trying to determine all the issues it faced and was assessing how much money would come from the Government to get it through the uncertainty. The largest single impact was from the closure of Leisure Centres – closed by law – and the car parks which were completely emptied following the lock-down. It was too early to determine whether officers’ assumptions were correct on future car park usage. However, it was believed during July it could reach 50%, and hopefully increasing from then on. The only good news. Commercial property tenants’ rents were holding firm, but the council had been “giving comfort” to some community tenants who had been hit very hard.
The huge reduction in planning work had to resulted in a £600,000 loss of income.
Work on savings, already underway prior to the pandemic, had reached £9m – “so Waverley was running a very tight ship.”
The council was pushing for a fairer formula for future business rates and seeking more Government help – along with other local authorities.
He said removing £3m from the council’s reserves had been “an extremely painful and nasty process.” An act that could affect the council’s future plans.
(Later in the meeting the Executive went behind closed doors to consider the situation on its Leisure Centres.)
Was that thud the sound of Cranleigh’s New Leisure Centre going off the diving board? A £12.75m centre pledged by the former Tory administration shortly before last year’s May elections with money that the new council found once in power that it did not have?
The Voluntary sector had experienced an increased demand for services, particularly in the villages. However it was doubtful that sector could continue meeting such high demand, and Waverley may have to step in?
Councillors agreed to recommend increasing the costs of collecting green waste; look at ways of reducing grounds maintenance and at the agreements it had for funding community groups including day centres. Strategic Director, Annie Righton warned the council must prevent “double billing”‘ for the staff day centres had furloughed.
Following a suggestion from Cllr Jerry Hyman (Farnham Residents’) it was also agreed to investigate further a way of removing money from Farnham Park SANGS.
The next six months would be crucial in determining how much further the council’s income would deteriorate or improve.
It was unanimously agreed that if further Government funding was received – that money would be used to replenish the council’s reserves.