Dukes Ward Councillor, Sir Ron Watson, who has spent many hours trying to determine the true financial position of the Strand has now been denied further access to information by the Leader of the Council, Councillor Ian Maher.
Sir Ron has established that under the Cabinet Constitution Elected Members such as himself are able to have an issue raised at the Cabinet and are in turn allowed to attend and to speak on all issues they raise including those that are considered to be ‘financially confidential’.
Sir Ron submitted a formal request to have a report on the Strand that detailed the position prior to the Covid-19 factors but this request has been vetoed by the Labour Leader of the Council on the grounds that it is premature.
Sir Ron said “the Council will no doubt plead for additional funding from the Government with national tax payers money to meet a range of additional commitments and while substantial sums have already been made available the longer the problem goes on the worse the financial position will be.
In these instances it is essential that the Labour administration is open and upfront where there are issues that arose prior to Covid-19 and the Strand is clearly in this category.
I and my colleagues had to spend many months prizing out of Labour the fact that the Strand situation up until the end of March was deteriorating month by month and where the so called value of the Centre had already dropped significantly but that interest payments on the £32m borrowed had to continue on that figure and not the substantially reduced new amount.
The claims by Labour that this didn’t matter because there was no intention to sell is rather like saying that you have a mortgage of £200,000 on your house but that because it has dropped in value to £150,000 it doesn’t matter that you are in negative equity and having to pay interest charges on a much reduced capital value.
To this must be added the growing number of empty units and vague talk about putting in further private sector services that was accompanied by refusal to say what they might be and how they were to be funded from the public purse.
This background indicates a continued attempt at secrecy and whatever the figures actually are the refusal to let the public know the true situation will not go down well with the Government who will look to Councils to behave responsibly.
Sir Ron said he was stressing the fact that the desire from Members of the Council to have the true picture was designed purely for openness and whilst to the credit of the Council’s financial officers in particular prior to lockdown there was a balanced budget. The £1m per annum that the Strand was supposed to generate is clearly not anything other than a one off figure and even then it has never been possible to find out where this £1m was actually spent or to what service it was allocated – if any!
Sir Ron concluded the continued refusal by the Labour leadership to ‘come clean’ does them no credit and to refuse Elected Members the opportunity to raise the issue formally in Cabinet is perhaps the worst example of how they have failed to learn the lessons of the past couple of years and does them no credit.
The true position before lockdown should be made publicly available as without this it is impossible for Councillors to determine what action will need to be taken in the future to try and get us out of the financial mess that has been created.