Council attacked over £137m debt
PUBLISHED: 09:00 13 August 2012
NORTH Somerset Council has come under fire from one of its own members for taking on increasing debts during a time of financial austerity.
The authority’s debt levels have been steadily rising in recent years, with the amount owed currently standing at £137million - £3million more than a year ago.
Some of that money has gone on the current £9.7million Town Hall revamp, while £15million was spent buying and kitting out new Castlewood offices in Clevedon.
Liberal Democrat group leader Mike Bell this week questioned the wisdom of running up debts at a time when the authority is being forced to trim £47million from its service budgets across four years.
Cllr Bell said: “The nation is in recession and going through a time of national and local government belt-tightening.
“During this period, the council’s cash balances and reserves have been falling, but debts have been rising.
“I am very concerned that debt levels are fast becoming unsustainable, leading to higher bills for North Somerset’s council taxpayers for years to come.
“I know many residents question the wisdom of spending millions of pounds on council offices at a time of budget cuts and austerity. When you think that most of this money will take decades to pay back, who can blame them?”
However, the council says its borrowing is not unusual, and remains well within its authorised limit of £202million.
A spokesman said: “The vital message here is that this money is being used for long-term investment which will benefit our residents.
“Our office amalgamation programme is very much an investment for the future.
“Basing council staff in two main locations at the Town Hall and Castlewood enables them to work more closely together and with our partners to deliver improved services for local people.”
North Somerset’s executive member for finance, Conservative Tony Lake, agreed - and took a swipe at Cllr Bell over his comments.
Cllr Lake said: “Cllr Bell’s criticism seems strange given his alternative budget proposal to borrow an extra £10million to fund one-off capital projects which offered no return or future savings.”
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