Woking Liberal Democrats slam debt letter left behind by outgoing Conservatives

May 17, 2022 7:11 AM

Woking Debt Letter

  • Urgent debt letter emerges on "excessive risks" taken by Woking Council, received on 11th May by outgoing Conservative Leader
  • Senior Ministers now echo concerns raised by Liberal Democrats
  • Incoming Liberal Democrat Council Leader pledges to "work tirelessly and constructively for financial answers"

Woking Liberal Democrats have condemned the complacency of outgoing Conservatives and pledged to work constructively with central government for answers, following the unearthing of a letter dated last week and addressed to the outgoing Conservative Leader of Woking Borough Council.

The newly-emerged letter, signed by a senior Minister, outlines central government concerns about "instances of excessive risk" due to "disproportionate levels of debt" and "pursuing novel and risky investments". The letter also makes explicit - exactly as raised by Liberal Democrats in opposition and exactly as denied by the local Woking Conservative Party - concerns that this behaviour does indeed mean "putting taxpayers' money at risk".

This follows increasing concerns by central government departments about the affordability of the United Kingdom's most indebted local authorities, and in particular Woking Borough Council which leads this dubious list of Council debt per household. This situation is underlined in the newly-unearthed letter, with Woking Borough confirmed by a Minister of State as having "the highest level of commercial debt (relative to its size) of any authority".

The newly-emerged letter also confirms that due to the past actions of the outgoing Conservative administration, Woking Borough Council is likely to come under the scope of new powers proposed by the UK Government to reduce financial risks. To reduce the threat of any direct intervention, the Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has requested further information about the affordability of borrowing agreed by the Conservative administration.

Cllr Ann-Marie Barker, incoming Liberal Democrat Leader of Woking Borough Council comments: "This letter is both a shocking revelation and a long-overdue confirmation of what local people already suspected. Woking Conservatives were taking excessive risks with the financial future of residents.

"For many years, we have been asking questions on the sustainability of Conservative borrowing. Conservative councillors have been spreading complacency for nearly as long.

"Ambition for Woking is to be applauded, but it has become clear that the previous administration swapped ambition for self-admiration many years ago. Likewise, extraordinary levels of debt would be far less problematic if they were backed by extraordinary assets. Yet our hardworking team of Liberal Democrat Councillors have already revealed this is not the case. Directors of many Council-owned companies valued properties and other major assets themselves. Far from independent. Many investment cashflows appear to be funded only by extra debt every year. Far from affordable.

"All this means that, indirectly, even Woking's core Council services have been left increasingly dependent on new borrowing. Woking's debt will take many decades to peak, but local residents can be reassured that this borough has now at least traversed the worst trough of Conservative complacency.

"It would be just as irresponsible to promise overnight solutions to these immense challenges, but we will take on the gradual challenge of major change. As Leader, I will work tirelessly and constructively for financial answers. The new Executive will also work hard to constructively engage with partners such as central government departments, in particular around our shared concerns, now confirmed by DLUHC in this letter."

Liberal Democrat Ann-Marie Barker will formally take on the role of Leader of Woking Borough Council on Monday 23rd May, and will immediately appoint a new Liberal Democrat administration.

Will Forster has also been confirmed as incoming Deputy Leader. This follows a landslide victory in recent Local Elections and the first Liberal Democrat majority since 1998.

Woking Borough Council already has debts approaching £2 billion even as of December 2021. The outgoing Conservative administration signed off an increase to £2.4 billion over five years, at a meeting of the outgoing Conservative Executive held on 24th March 2022.

Cllr Will Forster, incoming Deputy Leader of Woking Borough Council, adds: "We were slurred as 'scaremongers' just for demanding affordable finances. Now it's clear: if Conservative Councillors want to keep branding sensible financial questions 'scare mongering' they need to call their own Conservative Ministers scaremongers too!

"The Conservatives have left an awful legacy for the incoming Lib Dem administration and future generations of Woking residents.

"In stark contrast, Liberal Democrats are already tackling these issues locally, and dedicated to working constructively with central government departments and a range of suitable financial experts to eventually deliver a sustainable local budget."

For media enquiries please contact:

Cllr Adam Kirby, group head of publicity, Woking Borough Council Liberal Democrats

Adam.Kirby@wokinglibdems.org.uk

Notes to editors:

Woking Borough Council election results, 2022: https://woking.gov.uk/results2022

DLUHC proposed measures on affordability of local authority finance, 12th May 2022:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/local-government-capital-investment-and-borrowing-proposed-measures-to-address-risk/local-government-capital-investment-and-borrowing-proposed-measures-to-address-risk

Woking Borough Council Executive meeting under outgoing administration, 24th March 2022, including 'Medium Term Financial Strategy': https://moderngov.woking.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=165&MId=1203&Ver=4