Premature’ to comment on financial impact of coronavirus on Central Beds Council

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A Bedfordshire local authority, which admitted to “facing harsh reductions in funding” over last year’s budget, is staying tight-lipped over the effects of the coronavirus crisis on its finances.

The daily changes facing Central Bedfordshire Council are behind its reluctance to speculate on the potential overall impact on its budgeting for 2020/21.

Even opposition group leader and Independent Potton councillor Adam Zerny has been left in the dark about what contingency measures are being considered going forward.

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“I have asked CBC what projections it has made for likely loss of income during the pandemic,” he said.

Central Bedfordshire council's HQCentral Bedfordshire council's HQ
Central Bedfordshire council's HQ

“Initially, the local authority said it couldn’t do this as there are ‘so many variables’.

“Days later, CBC admitted it was making such projections, but wouldn’t share them with me.

“I asked the council which areas of income were likely to be lost, but it has refused to tell me so far.

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“I also asked CBC how it would cope with potentially huge losses of income, but it insists the government will lend it money.”

Neighbouring Luton Borough Council says it has written to the government to outline the extent of the problem it faces.

Its Liberal Democrat opposition group leader councillor David Franks estimates a cost to the council of between £30m and £35m for the financial year 2020/21.

A 12-month business rates holiday for retail and other businesses will impact on local authority finances, although this could be reimbursed.

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Another factor is the ability of residents, facing pay cuts and even redundancy, to keep up with council tax payments.

A council spokesperson would only say: “It would be premature to comment on the financial impact of the coronavirus crisis on us, as the picture is changing on a daily basis.”

On its website to promote the budget book for 2019/20, deputy leader and Conservative Arlesey councillor Richard Wenham said: “CBC is currently facing harsh reductions in funding, which is having a detrimental effect on how and where money is being spent.

“However, with that being said, to date we have achieved efficiency savings of £133m, which is expected to increase to £174m by 2022/23.

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“While CBC is seeking further efficiency savings, we guarantee to maintain protection of our front line services.

“This relates directly to one of our core purposes, providing residents with excellent value for money.”

A further £41m of efficiency savings is planned by CBC from 2019/20 to 2022/23.

Councillor Wenham, who’s also the executive member for corporate resources, told a meeting in January: “This coming year we propose to spend £400m gross, £212m net, providing services to our residents.

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“This represents a £16m rise in our net budget and reflects increases in council tax and business rate income, as well as extra government grants particularly for social care,” he said.

“But pressures continue in children’s services, care of old people and disabled adults, as well as in waste disposal and demands for improved roads, footpaths and street lighting.”

The council’s website says: “Some services are changing to help protect our most vulnerable people from coronavirus.”