Plans to borrow more money to help fund West Sussex County Council’s infrastructure projects has caused concern among councillors.
West Sussex County Council’s five-year capital programme unveiled last week is looking to respond to 57,000 new homes due to be built over the next 15-20 years, and includes £77m for more school places, and £61m towards maintaining the county’s highways network.
But councillors expressed concern at provision for up to £75m worth of additional borrowing to fund some of the projects alongside money from Government grants, capital receipts, and revenue contributions at a Performance and Finance Select Committee meeting on Monday (October 19).
Steve Waight (Con, Goring) pointed out that since they were already struggling to balance their books and were looking to make a further £141m worth of cuts in the next four years.
Any added borrowing would put further pressure on the revenue budget through repayment, and by 2036 they could be repaying £46.6m a year.
Mike Glennon (UKIP, Lancing), leader of the UKIP Group at WSCC, said he was ‘deeply troubled by the increase in borrowing’ and described debt as a ‘drug you can’t get off’.
While some schemes would be ‘dead certs’ he argued they needed a way of evaluating the merits of all the projects so they could look at them in reverse order and inspect in detail those they had least faith in.
He added: “We need to look at some of these schemes and look at whether we can reverse this borrowing binge as it worries me. Putting £75m liability on to a balance sheet is nothing something to be taken lightly.”
But Louise Goldsmith (Con, Chichester West), leader of WSCC, said: “I want to make it quite clear, throughout our deliberations we have not looked at it with recklessness.”
She added: “It’s not a binge, it’s not a gamble and we are not spending the full £75m.”
She explained that the £75m figure was not about giving the Cabinet a blank cheque, but an ‘envelope to work within to manage the five year plan’.
Michael Brown (Con, Fernhurst), cabinet member for finance, explained that the £75m was an upper limit and not a target.
As they had spent £722m on capital schemes over the last five years and were proposing £676m over the next five years, he said in no way could the programme be construed as the council ‘embarking on a wild spending spree’.
Richard Burrett (Con, Pound Hill and Worth) said: “It’s quite a fine balance but at the end of the day whilst I understand the risks and I have concerns about the risks, I think we have got to grasp the nettle and go forward with this.”
But Peter Lamb (Lab, Northgate and Three Bridges) said they might as well not have seen the list of capital programmes because of the lack of information and detail available on them.
Meanwhile Brad Watson (Con, Nuthurst and Southwater) argued that when he looked at the list of schemes there were some ‘obvious gaps in the county’, especially in the north of West Sussex.
Mr Brown replied: “There are huge competing demands for a finite amount of money. There will be losers as well as winners.”
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