Eastbourne council has been criticised for what has been described as a “staggering debt” of almost £200 million.
Conservative councillors have harangued the Lib Dem-controlled council following a full council meeting last night (February 20) which saw the authority’s budget approved.
Reflecting on the vote, Lib Dem councillors today said the new budget meant avoiding cutting vital frontline public services, but Conservatives say it is putting itself in too much debt.
Conservative Councillor Penny di Cara said, “Liberal Democrats grumble every year about how local government is now funded but they were in government just a few years ago and were happy to support this approach, so it’s rank hypocrisy to say they disagree just to score cheap political points.
“The fact is this Lib Dem borough council is heading for a financial catastrophe that we Conservatives have been warning about for some time now.
“We have consistently said the council’s projected borrowing has increased year on year. Now we have a council with a quite staggering debt of nearly £200 million and it only has an annual budget of £13 million.”
The Sovereign ward councillor said, “It has made bad investments, particularly Hampden Retail Park which was purchased in May 2017 for £18.8m and the audit report last year decreased its value by £2.119m.
“Overspends abound at the Devonshire Park development too and local residents need to ask: is this Lib Dem council financially competent?”
Borrowing to purchase assets ‘is sound investment’
Council leader David Tutt has defended his position following these comments, arguing the council’s borrowing to purchase assets is sound investment.
He said, “The Conservative opposition, whilst voting against the budget failed for the fourth year in succession to offer any alternatives.
“Looking at the financial position of EBC (Eastbourne Borough Council) it is the Liberal Democrats who rescued it from near financial catastrophe.
“When they took over control from the Conservative they found that: the council’s cash collection contractors had not been paying monies collected into the council’s bank account; the council was to be fined by Government for late and inaccurate benefit calculations over the previous two years: the council tax base had been wrongly calculated, meaning that the income for this was going to fall more than £1m short and the Council-owned bus company was only solvent due to an unsecured loan from an executive director.”
Councillor Tutt, who represents St Anthony’s ward, said, “The Liberal Democrat administration turned around the fortunes of the council, saving more than £500,000 a year in rent on office buildings by moving to agile working, sharing staff with Lewes, saving more than £2m a year on improved contracts and investing in assets which pay a dividend to the council.
“It is sad the Conservatives locally seem to fail to understand that borrowing to purchase assets which not only return an annual dividend which protects frontline services but also appreciates in value, is sound investment.
“Whilst it is true that the value of property can fluctuate, the important figure to concentrate on is the bottom line of the council finances and the independently audited accounts for Eastbourne show the net worth of the Council, after all borrowing is taken into account, increased by £10m over the past year.
“It is of course possible that they do actually understand this as the council with the highest level of borrowing is the small Conservative Council of Spelthorne, who have borrowed over £1bn for such investments.”
Councillor Tutt also said it was “interesting” the Conservative group had “attacked” them for a comment on the reduction of the Government grant.
He said, “Whilst it is true the Liberal Democrats supported a reduction in public spending during the early 2010s, we have made it clear far too much of this has been focused on cutting the grant to local councils to a point where these cuts are destroying communities.”
Read more politics: