Shaer Halewood explained to Wirral Council councillors why there is a “spending freeze” on “discretionary spending” due to projected £7-£12 million overspend
Public meetings of Wirral Council’s Audit and Risk Management Committee aren’t usually interesting but yesterday evening’s meeting aired a lot of Wirral Council’s dirty laundry in public.
There was the saga that had been going on for around a decade about the marquees in the greenbelt (this blog previously reported the criticism of the Court of Appeal Judges of Wirral Council and the court hearing can be watched on YouTube). Just as a small side point I might point out the first live broadcast of some Court of Appeal cases started in 2013 – while in 2013 Wirral Council was trying to stop me filming public meetings (the law was changed the next year) – which ties in to some of the comments at the meeting last night about working culture.
However with a general election in progress, there was a certain amount of political point scoring too during the meeting on subjects as diverse as whistleblowing, Wirral Council employees going into the homes of people who had died, stripping them of valuables then there being no records as to whose valuables they had belonged too, all the way until the item I left after (although the meeting went on after that) which was a verbal report from Shaer Halewood (Director for Finance and Investments and s.151 officer) about the “spending freeze”.
I will briefly explain what has led to this point – earlier this calendar year back in March 2019 Labour had a majority on Wirral Council and proposed and voted on a budget for 2019-20. After the elections in May Labour lost its majority (although carried on as a minority administration). Opposition parties (Conservative, Lib Dem, Green and Independent) who had campaigned in the election opposed to parts of Labour’s budget have since May in some cases blocked its implementation (three examples would be the policies such as lending a developer £26 million for the Hoylake Golf Resort, the private sector running some of the municipal golf courses and outsourcing the running of the Floral Pavilion (which is a theatre and conference centre)).
In some cases the implementation of opposition policies (such as the recent ending of the Wirral View newspaper) have saved money.
There were also some extremely optimistic (indeed unachievable) sums that had been written into the 2019-20 Budget such as projected income from Wirral Council’s joint venture with Muse Developments through the Wirral Growth Company.
The result of the above is that six months into the year financial chickens have come home to roost and the budget projections project a year end overspend of between £7 million and £12 million (although these projected figures go up each quarter).
Meanwhile in what is a a mirror image of Wirral Council in the world of politics at the national level – a minority administration (but Conservative rather than Labour) has decided to go for a general election.
However back to local politics at Wirral Council. The Director of Finance Shaer Halewood was open and honest with councillors yesterday about how the “spending freeze” doesn’t apply to certain categories of spending and how she was trying (despite the working culture of Wirral Council) to ensure compliance with its internal financial rules.
Budgetary matters are of course part of the responsibilities of all 66 Wirral Council councillors who not only set and vote on the budget each year but also have democratic accountability to the public for how public money is spent.
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