Cllr Dexter Smith is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Slough Borough Council
When Local Government Minister, Kemi Badenoch, announced that Commissioners were being dispatched to sort out a failing Slough Borough Council, last October, she described the Council’s problems as “unprecedented”. Slough is not a big Council – the third smallest unitary by area – but it is labyrinthine.
Slough has the biggest budget deficit in Local Government history, but an exact figure won’t be available until its 2018-19 accounts have been signed-off by Auditors, in December. That creates a baseline for “capitalisation” – Government permission to sell off assets and use receipts to pay-down debts – perceived as the Council’s way out.
With an annual budget of around £110 million, the Council’s deficit just from 2018-19 to the end of this financial year is £307 million. That is the amount of its current capitalisation package, but Slough has requested more, and its deficit is expected to rise above £500 million.
It has been agreed that the Council’s Recovery Strategy must include selling at least half of everything the Council owns – £600 million worth of assets that residents bought to provide local services. This is becoming a well-trodden path for getting local authorities out of financial difficulties, but nobody knows whether it will work on this scale.
Days after the last Council election by thirds in May, Slough’s Commissioners commented on the Cabinet’s financial update:
“When you strip out schools, parks and infrastructure like highways because they cannot be sold, the need to sell £600m of assets….. requires the disposal of most of the council’s property holdings without exception….. sold in less than 3 years….. there is a major risk in that Slough does not currently have sufficient officers with the skill and competence…. and the processes currently in place in the Authority militate against the speedy action required.”
Slough’s 2018-19 Accounts have been completely rewritten under statutory directions from External Auditors – 100 per cent of the numbers and 60 per cent of the notes changed, adding £185 million to the Council’s accumulated debts. Part of the Council’s problem, according to Slough’s Interim Director of Finance, is that the Council has been operating with inaccurate accounts since 2016.
It has been a year since Slough Borough Council had to issue a Section 114 (bankruptcy) Notice – it couldn’t maintain paying more than 30 per cent of its income servicing a mountain of debt – but despite the welcome arrival of three government-appointed Commissioners to make a best value intervention in Slough, very little has changed yet.
The Council still has the same Leader of Council, in post since 2018 – re-elected by the Labour Group as “the best person to get us out of these difficulties” – he in turn appointed his predecessor from 2008-2016, as Lead Member for Finance. This dynamic duo presided over the slump in Slough’s fortunes as a retail centre, now not even a sub-regional hub when, in 2007, Slough had the largest Tesco’s in the country; and this “leadership” didn’t put up a fight to keep our university campus from closing despite our population growing so fast that we are the only large town where the average age has fallen well below national and regional figures.
The financial crisis facing the Council has not developed overnight. Decisions made by the Labour administration saw borrowing increase from £180 million in 2016-17 to £760m in 2020/21. The Council’s over-ambitious acquisition strategy saw council taxpayers footing the bill for a £50 million luxury Headquarters; and a further £100 million for the purchase of commercial “investment” properties outside of the borough.
Labour’s plans in Slough included setting up several property companies with Government grants, intent on building large amounts of social housing, and thousands of one and two-bedroom flats with no parking in central Slough, plus a northern expansion across the border into the neighbouring South Bucks to build much needed three-bedroom-plus family houses. It was social engineering on a grand scale – moving in yuppies “priced out” of London; sucking out of Slough some larger well-to-do families – accelerating movements going on for most of the last four decades Labour has run Slough Council.
Big changes are coming for Slough but very few have yet impacted – Labour is introducing charges for collecting green waste, while putting off difficult decisions about changing recycling and general waste to fortnightly collections. They also refuse to consider selling the Council’s £50 million luxury HQ which has three of its five floors available for rent. Conservatives argued at the May elections that this symbol of failure should be sold; we gained one seat and retained another – the only net gain for the Party in the South East this year.
Labour is resisting change in Slough – wanting it only bit-by-small-bit, in the hope that given time, something will turn up to help them…. lobbying our Government hard for help on the basis that 4 of our 15 wards are among the most deprived in the country. Of course, the Government has to help the poorest with the Cost of Living crisis, but why in the midst of all the wealth in and around Slough did another ward slip into deprivation a couple of years ago?
If Government takes the view: “it’s all too difficult in Slough – wipe the slate clean and start again”, that lets Labour off the hook and makes the national taxpayer pick up the bill – not a good precedent to set when many Labour councils responded to the Osborne austerity with “borrow and spend”. The answer is surely to move to a small government/minimalist council model, procure the necessary services from neighbouring authorities, and free the town from misguided social engineering and stifling political interventionism.
If the deadweight of socialist control were lifted from Slough’s £8 billion per annum local economy, businesses here would boom, where we have western Europe’s largest industrial estate, next after London for the number of HQs to foreign-owned companies operating in the UK, and a large concentration of logistics businesses of all types on the fringe of Heathrow Airport. We need to win control of the Council in all-out elections in 2023, and follow that by gaining a parliamentary seat from Labour…