Budget Statement 2014/15 by The Leader of the Council

14 February 2014

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Woking Borough Council Budget Statement 2014/15 by Councillor John Kingsbury, Leader of the Council

13 February 2014

Madam Mayor, fellow Councillors, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I have pleasure in presenting another balanced budget to the Council which includes a modest but unavoidable increase in Council Tax of 1.9%.

We have yet again protected services for local residents despite the continuing challenges we face, as the Coalition Government reduces its support for us in order to balance the public finances. Our ability to maintain service for local residents is due to the continuing positive action taken by the Conservative administration of this Council to secure improvements in operational efficiency and investment in economic growth. However we could not achieve this through leadership alone and I am sure the Council will support me in thanking Council staff for their strenuous efforts on behalf of the residents of Woking.

I am also pleased to thank members opposite as I continue to be grateful to them for the occasions when they have supported our initiatives over the past year and I hope they will continue to do so next year and for many years to come.

During this year we have coped with the changes to Council Tax Support and Housing Benefit and helped the most vulnerable in our community with these changes. We have also coped with the localisation of Business Rate even though we only keep around 5% of the money we collect, not the 50% the Government say we get; I will be taking this matter up with Brandon Lewis as I believe the Coalition Government has misled the public when they say we get 50%.

I said last year and I must repeat it this year that we still have tough years ahead of us, probably as far as 2020 or beyond if the Government is to get the public finances into balance by the end of the next Parliament. However I believe with strong Conservative leadership and a continued commitment to investment in economic growth and community facilities we can continue to meet the needs of local residents to 2020 and beyond.

The economy remains a challenge for us all. While things have improved, and the outlook appears more promising, economic growth is modest in historic terms and we are not yet back to where we started in 2008. We have much more to do if we are to secure the future of this Borough. The Conservative Administration of the Council has created a positive environment within which Woking can continue to thrive. We have maintained our commitment to ensure that appropriate capital investment is made while achieving the savings necessary to deliver a balanced revenue budget. As a direct result of this, we do not need to cut any services for the residents of Woking in 2014/15; four years of difficulty and austerity and still we have protected services.

The Budget and Council Tax proposals for 2014/15 yet again demonstrates another year of positive Conservative leadership, which enables the presentation of a balanced and measured approach to maintain and improve services; improve cost effectiveness and take pro-active intervention to support our local community in these difficult times.

Over the last year we have had much success in delivering our priorities, despite the tough economic climate.

Waste and Recycling

We said we would continue to promote recycling.

Achieved! We are on target to maintain a circa 60% recycling rate for 2014/15 and will continue to seek new initiatives, such as the recent introduction of textile collections.

Housing

We said we would "Continue to use Thameswey Housing Limited to deliver affordable homes and pursue the PFI funding for Moor Lane, being always sensitive to the concerns of existing residents and the ability of the infrastructure and local services to bear additional development."

Achieved! The PFI Non HRA housing scheme has been approved and Evolution, a partnership between Thames Valley Housing and Kier, are currently constructing 224 affordable family homes; there will also be 147 family homes on the site for sale.

The sale of the Hoe Valley housing site to Crest Nicholson has also been completed and 150 homes will start being constructed next week for sale to help meet local housing demand.

The sale of Brookwood Farm to Cala is still progressing and is expected to secure a further 75 affordable homes and 222 family homes for sale.

We have continued to allocate investment to Thameswey Housing and have provided it with the necessary resources to deliver over 120 affordable homes over the next two years.

Economic Vitality of the Borough

We said we would "Focus on economic regeneration in terms of employment, leisure, recreation, retail environment and climate change initiatives and seek to improve the quality and extent of the retail offer in the town."

Achieved! We have built on the success of Jubilee Square and completed the first phase of the upgrade of Commercial Way - don't you agree it looks excellent!

In November we enjoyed the opening of WWF's UK Headquarters, The Living Planet Centre, in Brewery Road; the opening of the new Brewery Road car park; and the completion of the Bedser Bridge. We have commissioned statues of the Bedser twins which will be unveiled at the start of the 2015 cricket season.

The Mayor and I opened the new toilets in Wolsey Place; we listened to the residents of Woking - they said they needed new toilets and we have delivered them. If you haven't tried them already, please do so!

A landmark of the Borough's economic progress was completion of the final phase of the Barratts New Central development in Guildford Road; all the apartments are now sold - what an achievement!

And we have done much more: - the opening of the new Linkable Centre; the completion of the new roundabout access to BDB School; and the completion of the new Sheerwater Access Road with related improvements to Monument Road.

Through our Rutland Woking Joint Venture and in partnership with Schroders, we have supported the relocation of Wandsworth Electrical into new premises at Woking Business Park and sold its former site to Asda for the construction of a new 85,000 square foot store which will employ 400 local people. Construction is underway and Asda intends to open the new store in time for next Christmas.

We have also continued to build on our successful regeneration of the town centre with the arrival of new retailers and restaurants such as: the relocated and enlarged Top Shop; The Entertainer; Yankee Candle; Poundworld; The Fragrance Shop; Bossy Boots, Patisserie Valerie and the soon to open Deichmann shoe shop.

The construction of the new Woking Market is underway with works expected to be completed in July.

We have authorised the redevelopment of Alexander House to accommodate a major restaurant and a culinary academy with work starting after Easter for completion by Christmas.

Our Community Assets programme with construction of both the new St John's Memorial Hall and Horsell Scout and Guide Headquarters is well underway, with both expected to open later this year. I have already booked the Memorial Hall for 31st May!

Finance

We said we would "Prepare the Business Plan for 2014/15 on the basis that the target for any increase in Council Tax would be the CPI target set by the Bank of England."

Achieved! The proposed increase in Council Tax before the Council tonight is 1.9%. This achievement is despite the unprecedented reduction in Government support for local authorities.

We also said we would "Drive improved cost efficiency in the provision of Council services."

Achieved! We have maintained and improved Council services and kept the Council's finances sound despite continuing economic challenges.

We also set out to maintain the Council's reserves at circa 3m.

Achieved! The Budget before the Council tonight maintains this objective; although I am sure Councillor Cross will point out the slight dip in the forecast - but reserves are there to be used when necessary and to smooth out variances.

Now for next year

The Budget that the Conservative administration has recommended tonight ensures continuity of services and requires a continuing need to improve cost efficiency and invest in the future.

Woking Town Centre remains the major source of our revenue income, a major employment centre and a well connected location for business. It is recognised within the EnterpriseM3 (EM3) area as a centre for growth and will form a major part of its bid to Government for financial support to secure both economic growth and housing provision.

In 2014/15 we are looking forward to undertaking further improvements in the Borough. As part of the bid by EM3, and with partners, we will bring forward proposals in respect of Victoria Arch, and improvements to the areas around Woking Station. These are critical assets to facilitate economic growth.

In support of the EM3 bid and in partnership with the private sector we will bring forward major proposals, to be financed by others, for Goldsworth Road and for Chertsey Road that will incorporate new commercial and residential accommodation which will significantly contribute to both Woking's and the EM3 area growth objectives.

The plans for Victoria Square and the new Fire Station have been submitted and we hope they will secure planning consent in the next few months. We will then receive reports on the budgets for the schemes and the financing proposals; this will be a major decision for us and vitally important for the future of the Borough.

Proposals for the next phase of improvements to Commercial Way and the further development of Wolsey Place to secure additional new restaurants and retailers will be submitted to the Executive at its March meeting; these will add significantly to the improvements we have already made and, if approved, should be completed in 2014/15.

The Investment Programme and the Budget includes provision to investigate flooding issues across the Borough and to report back on proposals to reduce flood risk for specific schemes. It is clear the investment we made in Hoe Valley worked; the 200 homes that would otherwise have been at risk of flooding were saved. I am grateful to Officers and Serco colleagues who have worked so hard to help residents throughout the Borough protect their properties against the recent and current storms and flooding.

Before concluding, there are three matters which I wish to draw to the Council's attention, all of which I know have concerned some Members; the Investment Programme, Borrowing and the Council Tax Freeze Grant.

Concern has been expressed about how the Investment Programme has been compiled and whether or not it has been drafted in accordance with the Constitution. I have sought clarification on this point and it has been confirmed by both the Chief Finance Officer and the Monitoring officer that the proposals before the Council tonight are presented in accordance with the Constitution. The Council will note, however, that in the Investment Programme report, some projects which have been included in the investment plans and their financial implications taken into account in the Budget, have yet to be formally approved by the Executive.

The Council will note that in the proposals before it tonight we have capped our approved borrowing limit at 460 million, effectively the same level as the Council approved last year. We have done this to address the concern by some Members that the forecast borrowing limit had included the likely resources needed for Victoria Square. I have made clear that it will be for the Council to determine the financing arrangements for Victoria Square later in the year when we receive the advice from officers on the project cost, the income from sales and the net financing cost. We have therefore limited the borrowing level which will have no adverse effect on any other projects in the Investment Programme.

Some Members have asked whether we should accept the Council Tax Freeze Grant. The Executive has taken the view that it is not in the Council's interest to do so. The grant is only available for two years, 85,000 each year and will then cease, giving the Council a further savings requirement on top of the funding the Government has signalled it will withdraw. We expect no Government support by 2018 or possible sooner and we are determined to be more self-reliant and less dependent on Central Government. In the meantime, it is in the interests of local residents that we maintain the real term value of our income base; if we do not do so we will have to cut services. A Council Tax increase of 1.9% generates some 156,000 per annum (4 per year, 34 pence per month or 8 pence per week at Band D) and is added to our income base for ever. Taking the Freeze Grant is not a sustainable option. .We have therefore recommended maintaining our strategy of keeping Council Tax increases within reasonable bounds and within the CPI target set by the bank of England.

I hope this clarifies our position and addresses the concerns expressed by some Members.

Finally, I am sure the Council can agree that we have achieved a great deal in difficult times and that Woking residents have been well served by this Council. But we still have much to do to secure the economic vitality that is essential to underpin service levels in 2014/15 and in future years.

Madam Mayor, I have pleasure in commending this Budget and Council Tax proposal to the Council and hope all members will support it.

Councillor John Kingsbury, Leader of the Council

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