This is James Walsh’s speech to Council concerning the finanacial crisis in Guildford.
This is undoubtedly a difficult time for the council and the gravity of the situation is obvious, not least when we look at other local authorities facing a similar or worse predicament.
A lot of work and tough decisions need to happen to make sure that it we avoid a Section 114 notice – the local government equivalent of bankruptcy – and that the council collectively learns from some of the hubris and mistakes of the past decade or so.
My first point is that this should not be a time for party point scoring; we could all make a little political capital on this and, for some, the temptation must be great with a General Election just around the corner. But our residents deserve better and do not want that; they want to know how we – their elected representatives of all political backgrounds – are going to fix this and hopefully protect as many vital services as possible.
This is the huge task we face. I thank the officers and the Chief Executive for the honest, frank and rather painful report setting out the scope, reasons and recommendations before us. I have made the point in private and I make it again in public: we can only begin to address this through transparency and by having as much information as possible to help inform our decisions. This report is a good first step.
My second point is that we need to place this in the wider context: a context which takes into account the years of austerity after 2010; the rapid reduction of central funding for all councils during those same years; the provisions of the Localism Act that promoted local investment programmes as a replacement source of income; and the decisions in Guildford (upheld by councillors from all parties over a long period of time) to invest in an asset base to the tune of £300 million. Big investments were a direct corollary of – and response to – the cuts to local government and the provisions of the Localism Act and, while interest rates were low, deemed a sensible option for many councils.
Within the council, we have seen that “Future Guildford” has been problematic and has not achieved the savings that previous administrations had hoped for; there have been problems with the council’s capacity for treasury management; and the increasing cost of debt repayment has been decisive in getting us to this place.
That’s the context of where the council finds itself. We now have some hard choices to make to rebalance the books; with the interest rate now at 5%, the cost of financing the council’s capital debts has become too expensive; the capital programme itself is too heavy and problems around the council’s ability to manage its finances need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Having spoken to officers during the last couple of weeks, I am relatively satisfied that progress is being made, with details of possible options due to come before us in the very near future.
What form these options may take has not yet been shared with the opposition groups (apart from expenditure controls details in 7.46 and 7.47), but the Labour group anticipates a lot of soul searching around the future of non-statutory services and the disposal of some of the council’s assets. Tough decisions will need to be made.
The right decisions for the people of Guildford can only be made by clear heads, which is why I urge some restraint on the partisan sniping we have seen in other councils facing a similar – and worse – situation. We have an abundance of talent and experience in this chamber and it is surely better to use that knowledge for the greater good and for the good of Guildford than for short-term political gain. Yes, there will be a time for the politics to play out, but I put to you that now is not the time or place; now is the time to get the ship on an even keel and to plot a course for a more stable future.
Mr Mayor, I will conclude on a positive note. It has to be said that, while our immediate task is a big one and clouds are stormy, we are nowhere near the shoals on which Woking and others foundered so disastrously. We have a strong underlying asset base and a commitment by all in this chamber not to go under. We can get out of this.
We just need to demonstrate the collective leadership to do so.