By Coun Kevin Buck, Prittlewell Ward, City Cabinet Member for Highways, Transport & Parking.
IT is now just over 4 months since the Conservatives took over running Southend City Council as a minority administration.
This was after 4 years of the previous Labour-led coalition. Whilst I could use this entire column to describe what many saw as a chaotic, disjointed and at times, completely disengaged administration, there are far more serious matters to address.
For those who follow the various contributors to this feature, you will have been aware of the warnings and predications I have been giving about the councils’ finances for at least the last 2 years or more. These warnings were of course rebuffed by the coalition members in these very pages.
Very recently, they stated that the finances are healthy, there are plenty of reserves and the council is fiscally in the top 25 percentile of all councils in the UK.
The rebuttals should of course use the past tense, as that statement was true when the coalition took over the administration from the Conservatives, however, after 4 years of a ‘politics over policy’ coalition devoid of basic fiscal oversight, that is far from the reality now.
I take no satisfaction in advising that, after several years of warnings, they can no longer hide behind the truth, and I have been proven right.
The Conservative administration has spent the last 4 months digging deep into the finer detail of the previous administrations’ financial mismanagement, and please be assured, it is exactly that.
If we take the last 2 years, the 2022/23 budget was circa £7m overspend. The budget they set for 2023/24 in February this year, which came into action in April, was already overspent in the first month, with forecasts predicting at least £1m per month overspend. It is now forecast for an annual overspend of circa £14m. Anyone who knows anything about budget setting, will know that this does not happen within the space of 2 to 3 months.
Reserves have also been significantly depleted from a previous high of circa £100m, down to less than £20m today. I warned about this several times in this column. Unless we now take very serious and drastic measures to change the fiscal direction of the council, the reserves will be gone and we will end up like another Birmingham.
The coalition repeatedly forecast in their budgets, including 23/24, circa £3.5m of revenue from the Seaways development. After 8 years, this has still not been delivered, whilst the car park itself generates over £1m in parking revenue. Seaways will never happen now, as in todays changed world, it remains financially unviable.
The Vecteo SEN home to school transport was not only an operational disaster at the start of the contract, but financially continues to haemorrhage money way above budget. At least we have now taken control of the company that runs it and are looking further into this.
The renewal of the waste contract is one where the political incompetence is simply unforgivable.
This alone has now cost the council many £m’s. The coalition gave notice to Veolia over 3 years ago to end the contract in October 2023, so should have immediately embarked on precuring a replacement. That process alone can take 2 years, but instead, they sat in a state of paralysis for 2 years.
This has resulted in the need to extend the existing contract for at least another year and a last-minute procurement exercise, all of which has cost £m’s more than it should.
There has been much fuss made about removing the evening 6 to 9 parking charges in Zone 1A. We had already started to see the decline in overall parking revenue in July as people started to vote with their feet. A council struggling to balance its own budget, is not well served by a local economy forced to close business’s and putting local people out of work.
The current 2023/24 budget is the one set by the previous 3-party coalition alone and it has been almost entirely unaffected by any nominal changes the current Conservative administration has made.
Some will clutch at desperate straws to try to prove a political point about our recent policy changes, but the financial issues we now all face transcend politics. I would very much encourage full cross party working to get Southend through this challenging time. I could continue.
So be under no illusion, due to the past inaction, political and policy paralysis, combined with a lack of fiscal oversight by the previous coalition, some tough decisions are now needed. The Conservatives in Southend are working hard to get the City’s financial position back on track.
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