“It is difficult to know what to make of RFU's latest press release. RFU councillors seem to take a different position on the Council's finances every month. At Council last Thursday a third of RFU councillors voted in favour of the proposed investment strategy; now they issue a press release saying the opposite. Just one RFU councillor voted against the Council's original investment in Chesterford Research Park, yet now they apparently all oppose it.
RFU's 'phantom loss' largely reflects the Stamp Duty and the Land Registry fee paid on the purchase. The other element is a Fair Value revaluation - an annual non-cash accounting adjustment to the balance sheet. The downward adjustment in the first year was understood and expected, and was reflected in the purchase price paid by the Council. It was also fully reported to councillors, not least as part of the Governance, Audit & Performance (GAP) Committee's approval of the annual report six months ago. RFU councillors did not raise concerns at the time. It is unclear from their press release why they have only just noticed this non-cash accounting adjustment. Looking ahead, the valuation is expected to improve as the park is now almost fully occupied, plus the refurbishment of the Newnham Building will see the valuation increase further as the completion date approaches.
Chesterford Research Park makes a valuable and important financial contribution to the Council, making a £1.5m revenue surplus in its first year of ownership and an estimated £1.7m contribution to the Council this year (2018-19). Like everyone else, Uttlesford pays for our services with cash. If it had made the loss suggested by RFU, then the contribution from the research park could not have paid for the services the Council delivered over the last 12 months.
Technical arguments about accounting rules are pretty boring stuff. However, RFU's press release does raise an important point. Over the last four years the Conservative administration has successfully managed a one-third drop in Government funding to the Council, through efficiencies and the Council's investment in Chesterford Research Park. There have been no cuts in services. Indeed, we have continued to increase funding in a number of key service areas. However, it is clear that Government funding will fall by a further 50% over the next four years. If RFU believes that investment is speculation, then they owe it to residents to explain how it would bridge the gap. Will they increase Council Tax by 66%? Will they cut services? Will they move to a monthly refuse and recycling service? Will they sell off our only other major asset, our Council houses?
The Conservative Administration at Uttlesford is firmly of the view that further prudent investments are necessary to guarantee income. The majority of neighbouring Councils have long established investments that have been of great benefit to their residents. We will establish an Advisory Panel that includes external independent experts to assure the Council of its intended investments. A similar model is already in place for Chesterford Research Park. The Administration will work with the opposition parties to determine the make-up, remit and governance of this Panel.
In summary the Conservatives have managed Uttlesford District Council’s finances in a professional and successful manner for 12 years, we inherited a Council from the Liberal Democrats that was on the verge of bankruptcy. Our Council tax has only increased by 2.9% in 9 years but extra resources have been put into services and capital. The Conservative Administration came into politics to support residents not to cut their services. Our finances are strong this year and next but then we must plan for more challenging circumstances, that is exactly what our Medium Term Financial Strategy is doing. To play politics with that is simply irresponsible.”
The Conservative Administration’s budget was approved by a large majority at last Thursday’s Council meeting.
Cllr Simon Howell outlined a secure financial position and that despite losing over £2.5m of Government grants the Administration was able to increase its funding of key services and increase capital spending including for new waste vehicles, this has been facilitated by the income generated from the investment in Chesterford Research Park. The Council agreed that further investments will be required to mitigate potential additional cuts in Government funding.
The Administration is also pleased to report that a Liberal Democrat proposal with support from the R4U party to stop the funding of key public sporting facilities at Carver Barracks was defeated. Residents can now look forward to these important facilities coming on stream this year. The Administration has commissioned a review of sporting and leisure facilities across Uttlesford and the results should be available in April, we look forward to developing a plan that responds to the review and maintains our investment in sport and leisure.
“Livewell” is at the centre of so much of the Council’s agenda – social housing, leisure facilities, good air quality, caring for the elderly especially those living alone. Cllr Ranger referred to the Health and WellBeing Strategy which has 5 key priorities – Eat well, physical activity, age well, social isolation and winter pressures. Key areas that demand our attention
Cllr Rolfe introduced the 2019-20 Corporate Plan which has as its vision:
“Working together for the well-being of our community and to protect and enhance the unique character of the District”.
Underpinning the Plan and its objectives we will:
- Manage and minimise the environmental impact of our activities
- Maximise the use of digital and SMART technology to enhance well-being
- Demonstrate our commitment to diversity and inclusion
Finally, the Administration was delighted to recommend to Council the adoption of the Thaxted Neighbourhood Plan. It is a fine piece of work and was overwhelmingly endorsed by the local community. Neighbourhood Plans (which must be consistent with the Local Plan) give significant protection to local communities from unwanted development. UDC is very supportive of communities wishing to develop a Plan and is pleased to offer support and advice.
"As I said at the Council meeting the sports facility scheme at Carver Barracks has been a long term commitment from Uttlesford District Council (UDC). The Army are now confident of remaining at the Barracks until at least 2032 so this certainty enables the scheme to go ahead. It is exceptional value as the Army are the main funders and undertaking some of the work, the project includes an 8 lane athletics track with floodlights as well as more football and rugby pitches.
The Council is continually improving its sporting facilities and has commissioned a review of its Sports strategy which will report in April. The findings of this strategy will form the basis for further investments.
I find it extraordinary that the Liberal Democrats working with R4U and now the Labour Party want to scupper a brilliant scheme that will provide enjoyment and important facilities for many. There are already some sporting facilities at Carver Barracks that are fully utilised by the local communities, the new scheme will develop an already successful model."