It is estimated that unless something is done now, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council (TWBC) will find itself without enough money to fund the services it provides to residents in just four years.
New Lib Dem Finance chief for the cross-party ‘Borough Partnership’ at TWBC, Cllr Andrew Hickey, said inflation, pandemic costs and the ‘trail winds of austerity’ had left a central government funding gap of £8billion for local authorities across the UK.
Due to high costs in the region and historic decisions about priorities for spending, this funding gap in Tunbridge Wells now stands at £2.6million a year – a figure that is only set to rise – Cllr Hickey said.
“The top and bottom of it is that we have been left with a pretty significant deficit by the previous administration and it runs up to in the order of £20million in aggregate over the next five years.”
He continued: “We feel we need to act to safeguard the finances as a matter of urgency. We would have waited for the budget to be done – which is normally around February next year – but we kind
of feel that’s a bit too late.”
As part of a move to raise much-needed cash, several assets identified as being surplus to the Council’s requirements have been earmarked for sale.
The first proposed sell offs include the site of the former Gateway in Grosvenor Road. The centre has now moved inside the Amelia on Monson Road.
Mount Pleasant Avenue Car Park and the Great Hall Car Park are also to go up for sale, as is Council owned land in Warwick Park that is currently used by the town’s rifle club.
When sold, the sites are likely to be redeveloped for residential or commercial properties.
These asset sales are to take place right away and eventually help bring TWBC’s working capital back up to around £10million in 2025/26, said Cllr Hickey, while other assets are expected to be sold off following the initial sales.
“What we’re going to do is take three or four of those assets and market test them – understand the market demand and the value of them and hopefully move them off the Council’s asset register quite quickly in order to contribute to this review,” said Cllr Hickey.
He also wants to increase charges, such as parking fees, which could bring in just over £484,000 by the end of the financial year in March 2023, and over £848,000 by 2023/24.
‘Mount Pleasant Avenue Car Park and the Great Hall Car Park, both near to Calverley Grounds, are to go up for sale’
The price hikes will include an increase for the first hour of parking in the Council’s car parks from £1.50 to £2, while annual season tickets will rise between £50-80 a year.
Residents parking permits are also set for an increase of £10 a year – a move that will see some people asked to pay £90 a year to park their car outside their home.
Visitors to Dunorlan Park will also be asked to pay for parking for the first time.
Other fees to rise include garden waste subscriptions, which the Council had to suspend last year due to staffing issues.
The paid for service is set to increase from £52 to £56 a year, while other costs such as crematorium fees are also set to rise.
The rise in fees will ensure the Council can replenish its cash reserves, which are running dangerously low, Cllr Hickey warned.
“Quite prudently, the finance department has set the minimum level of our free cash – the cash flow to run the Council – at £4million,” he said.
“If we go below £4 million, we do not have enough working capital within a given year to run the Council. So any hiccups that we have during the year – and hiccups happen – you get in trouble.
“At the current rate of depletion of our reserves, we will hit that £4million in the 2025/26 (financial) year, which starts to become an unsustainable position for running a Council like this,” he warned.
“We do want to be prudent with this and take the advice of our auditors, who have been very clear that we should no longer be using the reserves to fund the Council.”
Plans for the sale of assets and increases in charges must be approved at the next Cabinet meeting on July 20, which is to be held in Sandhurst.
Meanwhile, Cllr Hickey said he would put together the 2023/4 budget to be presented in February, alongside a Medium Term Financial Strategy with a five-year picture of Council finances, which continues to address the deficit.