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Southend has just scrapped £16m of capital investment after £14.5m projected budget overspend

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

The cabinet were agreeing a report to remedy a financial blackhole, most of which, is of their own making. And in the Place Scrutiny meeting that followed, the cabinet member responsible made the stark admission that if nothing changes Southend Council will be bankrupt in 2 and a half years.


I was not quite sure if I heard it right, so I re-played the recording of the cabinet meeting several times.


Now, at this stage of my political understanding I may not be able to decipher the real meaning of the words that are being used, so I shall quote exactly what was said by the council officer:


“Revenue budget project forecast 'outturn' is £14.5m over budget for 22/23.


“This report sets out mitigating actions around what needs to be done by the council, immediately, to ensure that we bring the budget back into line by the year end.


“Not unique to Southend. Cost of living and inflation is impacting on council business.


"My interpretation of that is that if the council were to continue spending as they are, by the end of the financial year in April, they will have spent £14.5m more than they should have done."


The meeting informed us that council officers, through the ‘Capital Programme Delivery Board’ are looking at what should be paused, stopped or deferred in light of the circumstances.


The cabinet member said he has “held reviews with senior officers and already removed £16m this financial year from capital programmes.


“We will be revisiting programmes in October and will either suspend or put them away altogether.”


They did not mention which of the £16m capital programmes they had cut already. How they have justified them. Why, if they can cut them in a heartbeat, were they even considered in the first place? What impact that will have? And who it will have an impact on?


Nondescript Delivery


The delivery of this serious news by both the officer and cabinet member was as though we should be grateful the overspend is being taken care of with such efficiency, rather than as the alarming hack ‘n’ slash that it is.


There was no compassion, sympathy or apology for the situation forcing their hands.


This is a small criticism compared to what was being said, so why is this so important?


Not that anyone is accusing them of something that is not there, but if the delivery were intentional, it is looks a little like hiding in plain sight.


The information had been communicated, so Southend can never argue it was never told.


Yet it was told in a manner that, presumably for the vast majority of residents who are too busy with their own lives to worry about local politics, would really never compute.


As absurd as it sounds, only the Echo has the power to take that news and make it known. And even if they did, most would still remain unaware.


In light of the under-the-radar and ‘fly casual’ approach to the release of the news, I felt the need to amplify the importance of the two major points with a bit a pretentious word overplay:


£14.5m overspend is dumbfoundedly eye-watering; grossly worrying; confusingly incompetent and disconcertingly unimaginable. £14.5m is impossible to relate to in real life. £14.5 is a mystery as to how our money has been so mis-managed. £14.5m is so much money that it is difficult to work out why it has been brought up now, when this issue was probably staring somebody in the face months ago. £14.5m is so much money that we must already be overspending substantially now.


A £16m cut of the capital programme represents an almost 20% reduction for 2022/23, where the council had planned to spend £91.1m over the financial year. This included investment in our highways, schools, Southend Pier, council property, disabled facilities, community safety, culture and tourism, enterprise and regeneration, social care and council housing. A £16m cut will have a significant impact of areas of our lives that we are yet to discover, and by the time we do it will be far too late.


Where did the guillotine fall?


The cabinet member spoke broadly of prioritising vulnerable adults and children, supporting families, tourism, roads and pavements.


What this means, who knows?


Another cabinet member - the same one gloating about expensive police jet skis in the same meeting - stepped upon a soaring white horse and preached to the people of Southend that the blame for this disastrous financial catastrophe, was due in no small part to Southend residents failing to put our rubbish in the correct bin bags.


Had he not been deflecting this financial meltdown onto us he probably did have a point about re-cycling. According to the councillor, there is £1.2m spent on clearing our waste to landfill.


Governance


There may well be sufficient levels of governance within the council as a structure to check what is going on, however, working within the boundaries of the rules does not necessarily equate to good governance.


Not that this is a blame game, but there is someone at fault here. And a fault as significant as this ought to, as good governance, be investigated to ensure our finances are kept under more stringent control.


Our finances have been out of control, and as it stands there seems to be no such inquiry so the same people will continue to make decisions for Southend.


This is not a comfortable situation.


Have the council taken the correct action?


Well, you can’t spend what you don’t have. (Actually, that’s not quite true as the government regularly print money from thin air.)


But let’s, for argument’s sake, pretend that it can’t. Given this hypothetical situation, it would seem perfectly logical to make these adjustments.


Who could have predicted that the (scapegoated) Ukraine/Russia conflict would have caused worldwide energy chaos before setting out the budget? Or that the Lockdowns would have zero economic consequences?


This means that when Southend Council spent £10m to acquire Victoria Shopping Centre, and then another £2m to repair Victoria Shopping Centre, they, almost, cannot be accused of being reckless.


But now, with the knowledge of such uncertainty in rapidly rising costs, it is absolutely vital that we don’t take any further unnecessary risks.


The council would be well-advised to withdraw its proposals to spend £10m of reserves into the doomed Seaway development.


They must try to resist the addicted pursuit of the Queensway project given the failure in Swan Housing and Orbit merger/acquisition, for fear of the council having to mop up the predictably unforeseen extra expenditure when costs run out of control.


Place Scrutiny Committee: talk of bankruptcy


As it turns out, in the Place Scrutiny Committee meeting that followed last night, the language was more succinct.


"Bleak and nothing is off the table.


"If nothing is done Southend council will be bankrupt in 2 years and half years" said the Cabinet member responsible.


I needn't have spent half this article deep-diving into the tone of the delivery, but alas it is written and so it stays!


What was even more of a revelation from the subsequent meeting was that only £3m of the projected £14.5m overspend was down to inflation and £2m down to energy.


Still significant, however, this does mean that £8m+ is down to foresight limited to a nose.


In summary, just in case I have not been clear, Southend Council are on course to overspend £14.5m; they have already cut the capital budget by £16m to accommodate, but this may not be enough so now everything else in the budget is being threatened with severe cuts.


And this is largely self-inflicted.

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