Trowbridge in Lockdown Final Part - From possible bankruptcy fears to break even. Cllr Philip Whitehead on the cost of a Covid year - and beyond

  Posted: 20.11.20 at 16:20 by The Editor

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IN the final part of our interview with the man at the top of Wiltshire Council, we talk about finances.

During the summer, there were real fears that Wiltshire Council could run out of money and declare themselves bankrupt.

The council's leader, Cllr Philip Whitehead, spoke on BBC Radio Four and said they were 'just concentrating on getting through this year'.

So in the final part of Cllr Whitehead's interview with Trowbridge Nub News this week and with the next Budget due to be set in the February meeting of the full council, we asked him what is the financial situation at the moment at the authority, will the council run out of money in February and what about the future?

Here, Cllr Whitehead updates Council Tax payers on the situation

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Wiltshire Council leader Cllr Philip Whitehead

THE GOVERNMENT has spent billions of pounds fighting the Covid-19 pandemic this year. Some of that has come to Trowbridge and Wiltshire to support businesses and people who are hitting hard times.

Support grants have been made available during the last lockdown and for this current one from County Hall in Trowbridge.

But, while the majority of this aid has not come out of the Council Tax coffers at the authority, they have not been collecting nearly as much money as they would have done in previous years through their normal revenue streams.

And back in June, Wiltshire Council leader Cllr Philip Whitehead was concerned enough about cash to ask the Government to provide tranches of money 'to keep us going'.

With three months until the next Wiltshire Council Budget is put before authority members to pass, where does the council stand financially now? Will they go bankrupt?

Cllr Whitehead said in the week that the authority launched a local Track and Trace system: “Two aspects. With the Track and Trace, we are getting some funding towards it so that always helps.

“We have had funding through Covid-19 at different levels. One of the best ones was in Tranch Three when they did the Loss of Income Funding.

“So we have lost income through parking, we have lost income through the leisure centres being closed – and we have got some coverage coming back off that from Government – 75 per cent, which is very useful because that allows us to plan going forward.

“This year, which is until March 2021, we are fine now. We are ok. We predicted about half-a-million pounds deficit but half-a-million pounds, we will pull that in.

“We spend, as an organisation, about a million pounds a day. So half-a-million pounds sounds a lot to the average person but it is not in terms of our total spend.

“We have done that because we have done things we can do on a short-term basis. For example, we have suspended recruitment. Other actions you can take to cut down spend on a short-term basis can be done for several months.

“But you can't do that beyond a year but you can do it for several months.

“So we have been to do that and make sure our spend is ok and all of that.”

Looking further ahead, though, it is a much different picture, says Cllr Whitehead.

“Our problem is 2021/22 more so. We are looking at how do we set the budget for that? One of the complications on that is the Government have promised the Public Funding Review this December so we now been told that will be for one year only.

“They were looking to do it for four years-plus which would have been great. I understand they are going it for one year only because, I think, they are in the same situation. Until we get Covid covered, they don't know how much money they have got.

“So they are doing it on a one-year basis because they don't know where they are. I understand that entirely.

“We are already doing things like modelling budgets,etc, and then we go up to the first couple of months of next year – and not even that because we have to go to full council in February with it sorted.

“So we have got a lot of work to do over Christmas. It is harder next year because of two things. Firstly, because our businesses and individuals are struggling, we expect to collect less in Council Tax and (business) rates so our income level will drop.

“We will probably have to predict a lower income level from our leisure centres and our car parks as we will have to predict into next year that we will have less money from them.

“But we will continue to have higher costs both in terms of what we are expecting anyway, like growth in the old in care and children's services, but also because of Covid.

“So we will have to set our budget but when we looked at it recently, we were looking at where we were in terms of short-fall, which happens every year.

“It is doable but it won't be easy. It depends on Government looking at what all local authorities need in terms of long-term support for the future.

“We won't know until the last minute but we are confident we will do it, we are confident we will deliver next year and the question is how many difficult decisions will we have to make – or not make.”

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