Halt on spending could mean libraries close

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Peterborough Matters revealed earlier this month that the cash-strapped public authority had written to staff stating that the council would not be starting any new work in the near future, unless not doing it would be a health-and-safety concern.

The email asked for further ideas from staff to save money, with the proposal of a "significant underspend into 22/23" to help close the budget gap.

A halt may therefore be placed on non-statutory services, meaning those the council is not obliged to provide by law, and another email sent to senior teams seen by Peterborough Matters states that any works which might not be statutory but which have been contractually committed to can continue if they are underway. 

The news was swallowed and a pause in capital spending unanimously approved in an extraordinary full council meeting yesterday, December 16, of Peterborough City Council.

Cllr Andy Coles, Cabinet Member for Finance, said: “Members know that we face a huge financial challenge and any savings that we can make in this financial year will contribute significantly to our financial stability by 2023/24.

“The proposal is a ‘pause’ in spending, not a cancellation of projects.

“The Capital budget has already been revised down to just under £85m from the original £133m; but there is scope for further reductions of £9.435m”

While the proposals were unanimously approved at a much-reduced sitting of the Extraordinary Full Council – a reflection of the new COVID rules in response to Omicron – councillors were unhappy at some of the immediate effects of this moratorium which will see several well-used and much-loved facilities in the city closing, at least on a temporary basis until the budget is balanced.

These include the Key Theatre, Werrington Leisure Centre and potentially city libraries – facilities which in many cases, have only just re-opened following lockdown.

The moratorium will remain in place at least until March 11,  2022, when the council is legally required to balance the budget to retain control over their own finances.

Cllr Coles added: “Following that date, we will convene a meeting at the end of March fully reviewing the next three-year Capital programme to be undertaken ahead of the 2022/23 budget approval process.

“Every commitment in that programme will be properly scrutinised including spend to date projects and considering where match funding is in place, so that the council doesn’t find itself in this position again next year, the year after that, and so on and so on.”

The council will undoubtedly need to have a much smaller Capital programme over the next three years than has previously been envisaged.

Cllr Cole said: “That Capital programme will need to be much closer to the figures we are looking at for this financial year – in other words, something less than £80m.”

September's budget plans revealed a raft of savings, including cutting back on street cleaning, selling St George's Hydrotherapy Pool and expecting Opportunity Peterborough to become more self-sufficient. Council leader Wayne Fitzgerald also said that a council tax rise moving closer to the UK average of £785 was almost inevitable. 

By Rob Alexander

Local Democracy Reporting Service