The Leader of Council made the following statement:
I have been immensely proud to lead the Council during this period of emergency. The residents have reacted to this pandemic in a responsible and cooperative manner. The staff have shown strong commitment, innovation and flexibility. Thank you all.
We have sought to steer the Borough through very stormy waters with a firm and steady hand and I am pleased to say that generally we have been successful.
We had the first outbreak of Coronavirus nine months ago. Since lockdown a month ago cases in Wokingham have been falling and are currently 109.3 having risen to 155 at peak.
It is clearly disappointing to find ourselves in Tier Two, but that is because that the tiering is harsher than it was and that we have been grouped with the rest of Berkshire excluding Slough. Our policy is to ensure that as far we are able to return to Tier One. We believe that Tier One gives our businesses the best chance to recover and allows for our residents to lead as full a life as possible. The first review will be on December 16th and is based upon a number of factors; but regrettably it is not negotiable.
Since my last statement, two great British institutions Astra Zeneca and Oxford University have announced an effective vaccine awaiting approval by the regulator. Today I read that Sanofi, Translate Bio and GSK are coming into the frame, together with the Pfizer, and Moderna. We can now be reasonably confident that the light at the end of the tunnel is real.
I appreciate that everyone is tired, and it has been going on for some time, but sadly it will go on for much longer. Whilst the vaccines are excellent news, it will take some six months before they are universal, though benefits will be felt quite quickly as the elderly, the vulnerable, care homes and health staff are vaccinated. So, we as a Borough and Borough Council are planning for the winter and spring, in the hope that next summer we will return to normal; if we remember what that is.
We understand that health staff, over eighties and vulnerable groups may be inoculated as soon as this year.
Coronavirus is transmitted by contact or near contact. If we can inculcate a permanent behavioural change we can have a low rate of infection. Your Council is doing what is within its power to do so together with its partners; care homes, schools, businesses, marshals and community champions.
Our trace system is now working well and we will be rolling out in the New Year more universal testing.
Our primary task is now to ensure that every resident is safe, secure and not isolated throughout the winter. Everyone should have a warm home, food and the medicines. This administration is proud the homeless in the Borough are now very low and all homeless are looked after. We have housed all the rough sleepers except for one who insists that he prefers not to be housed. We will do the same with food and fuel poverty.
It is extremely important throughout this emergency that our residents have confidence in the Council. Statements that there are “6,300 children in poverty and rising” and that there are “one in six children living in poverty” in the Borough we do not believe to be accurate or responsible. Having said that, one vulnerable person, child or family is too much.
Next week in the Extraordinary Executive, we will be agreeing the additional financial help that we are giving families and businesses.
Similarly residents can have confidence that our Council’s finances are in extremely good health, despite the huge recent financial challenges we have faced as a result of Covid. These challenges have precipitated claims of insolvency, draconian service and staff cuts in other local authorities; there have been none here.
The only time in the Borough’s history that there has been a financial crisis was the period of control of the Lib Dems. We had perilous balances at only £2.3m, an uncontrolled overspend of £1.0m and had to act quickly to arrest a genuine fatal decline into insolvency,
Eighteen years of responsible leadership has, amongst other things, been devoted to restoring, maintaining and enhancing the Council’s wellbeing. This has entailed replenishing balances to a safe level of approximately £10m, delivering efficiencies of many millions of pounds year on year, generating new income sources through our commercially minded activities, whilst investing at an unprecedented level in key priorities such as highways, affordable housing and climate change.
We were financially strong and resilient coming into this emergency, despite years of austerity, in which we faced continuously escalating statutory care costs and severe restrictions in Government funding. It is this financial resilience that has enabled us to step up in the ways that we have needed for our community throughout the pandemic.
Our real terms cost of delivering services has reduced by 31% since 2011, primarily as a result of continuous improvement, giving savings of over £22m during the last five years on a net service budget of approximately £130m with very little that amounts to service cuts. Indeed, we have expanded services including waste collection and libraries, whilst other authorities have been pairing these back.
For the last five years our balances have held at approximately £9-10m. We are the lowest funded unitary authority at £84 per person whilst other authorities receive as much as £450 per person and yet we still manage to invest in services, including a capital investment programme for our community of £150-180m each year.
The Council’s Treasury Management mid-year statement reports our income from investment activities at £7.2m per annum, a material sum. All the borrowing the Council has ever had to deliver all our capital road schemes, schools, affordable housing, regeneration, is at virtually no cost to our residents. Actually it is £7.52 per annum for a Band D tax payer. This borrowing has allowed us to accumulate realisable assets of almost £500m, not including value from optimising our significant land holdings.
We are one of the best council tax and business rate collectors in the country and were indeed the very highest achievers for council tax for four years running. Indeed our collection rates are holding up even in these difficult times.
Our Housing Companies are now running at a profit of over £650k per annum and net assets of £1.3m.
Our Wokingham town centre regeneration has secured committed rental in excess of 87% of its retail assets, some of which are not yet built, and has secured rental income in excess of the cost of borrowing with retailers still flocking in to take up units; even in current times. Again, we buck the trend.
The Comprehensive Performance Assessment, widely feared due to its intensive and thorough inspection, awarded the highest score for Wokingham under many of its financial themes each year and the highest score on all themes in one year. We were the only council to have achieved this accolade. More recently we have been reported in national journals and in external specialist reports as having excellent financial standing and financial management.
Our financial strength and standing are not something that has materialised overnight.
We cannot rest on our laurels as we will have severe financial challenges in the future. The work we have done and continue to do should be recognised for its incredible achievement and should not be blemished by untrue statements that bring the Council into disrepute and discredits all those that have given so much.
The comprehensive spending review has not been unhelpful to Wokingham but until the overall financial settlement is made, which is expected in December, we cannot fully assess the significance for Wokingham.
Please help me to help you. Those on this call are Councillors, the press and interested members of the public. What you do and say will have an enormous impact on public behaviour towards the virus and economic recovery. Please do not make things up with Trumpian statements from Twyford or bizarre references to buying a kitchen and cars from the faculty at Royal Holloway, or because it is politically expedient, or provides a good story. To get through this successfully residents must have confidence in the Council and the press. Residents must feel that we are doing our best to keep everyone safe, secure and happy.
Lastly stay safe and observe the rules. Thank you.