Uttlesford District Council: Residents for Uttlesford-led authority says it is facing 'tough but manageable' financial challenges ahead
Uttlesford District Council is to look at selling off commercial assets in order to reduce a potential £5 million funding gap.
The Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) led authority said it was developing an option over the coming weeks to sell one or more of its assets to recoup £2m, leaving it to find savings of £3m.
The move was revealed by leader of the council Petrina Lees who said the council "was facing tough but manageable financial challenges over the next few years as it continues to monitor and respond to the impacts of the UK and global economic crisis".
Since announcing its 2022/23 budget back in February, the national financial picture had "changed dramatically" and Uttlesford's budgets were coming under increasing strain with the council anticipating it will have to make 20-25% net reductions in spending – up to £5 million – by 2027.
It said the contributing factors for the increasing pressures were outside of local authority control and included rising inflation rates, additional utility costs and changes to Government policy that would potentially reduce income, such as from business rates.
Mrs Lees said: “Uttlesford is not unique in this – all councils are facing tough financial pressures and we have to keep in mind that some have budget deficits running into hundreds of millions of pounds. By comparison, we are better placed than many councils to weather the storm, thanks to good financial
management and our excellent commercial asset portfolio.
“However, there remains much uncertainty over the future of local government funding and we must consider all scenarios and options as we look to develop a longer-term savings plan.
“We will continue to work hard to support our most vulnerable residents and will be thinking very carefully over the coming months about how we address the scale of the challenge ahead in ways that protect vital services as a priority.”
But opposition groups have accused the council of falsely blaming the problem on external factors. Addressing a cabinet meeting on Thursday, Cllr Melvin Caton, leader of the Liberal Democrats and Green Alliance (Stansted South and Birchanger), said: "I see that the R4U leader of Uttlesford District Council, Cllr Petrina Lees, has issued a press release claiming that the deterioration in the council’s finances are all the fault of external factors. That is incorrect.
"The half year report discussed at the recent Cabinet meeting showed two overspends of around £2m each which are the result of decisions that the R4U administration have taken or failed to take.
"Firstly, the council agreed to pay Stansted Airport £2.1m from our reserves because the Planning Inspectors ruled that Uttlesford had behaved unreasonably over the airport appeal by not defending the planning committee’s decision to refuse planning permission, but instead to argue for approval with conditions.
"The second poor decision the administration failed to take was to act on their commitment in the Commercial Strategy published this February to 'arrange long term funding to finance the Commercial Investment Programme. It is likely that this will be done in three tranches during 2022/23'".
He added: "These two decisions mean that £4m cannot be used to fund vital local services during a cost of living crisis. Responsibility comes with leadership. The administration needs to be honest with Uttlesford residents about it finances not seek to spin their way out of the financial “black” hole they have lead the council into."
Conservative leader Cllr George Smith (The Sampfords) said: "The district council's finances show that another four years of this administration will be Ruinous 4 Uttlesford. Strong leadership is needed to bring council finances back under control. R4U have shown they can't deliver on that and so they must step aside for those willing to take the difficult decisions needed to balances future budgets."
The council will set its 2023/24 annual budget and Council Tax levels, and also its five-year Medium Term Financial Strategy, in February.