Bedford Borough councillors in budget-balancing ‘reserves row’

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Bedford borough Lib Dems have said the Conservative administration had to use reserves to balance their budget.

But the Conservatives said that they are just following the Lib Dem suggestion to use reserves given at a council meeting last year.

In a statement sent to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), councillor Michael Headley (Lib Dem, Putnoe) said the Executive’s budget showed that £2.2m of reserves had been used to balance the last year’s budget.

He added that this is “on top” of another £2.5m of reserves that had been used to balance the current year.

Councillor Headley said: “If you have to raid reserves by £2.2m… that’s a substantial overspend that you only dealt with by burning through more of the reserves carefully stewarded by the previous administration.”

Councillor Headley added that the council’s budget reduces planned payments into reserves for future expected spending on vehicles and new technology “to the tune of £800k”.

“Will this just end up as even more increased borrowing – with all the increased interest payments?” he asked.

Councillor Headley added the council had to borrow £84.6 million in the second half of the year – “at a cost of £254k in interest payments”.

He said: “This is what we have been warning about – the impact of increasing borrowing on the Capital Programme.

“This is a buy-now-pay-later approach, storing up problems for the future.

“The council can only spend the reserves once and when they are gone, they are gone.”

Conservative group leader and portfolio holder for finance and corporate Services, councillor Graeme Coombes (Wixams & Wilstead) said: “At a previous Full Council, 12 July 2023, the Liberal Democrats suggested using reserves in order to cover their own poor financial stewardship.

“But now that we have done exactly what they were suggesting, they seem to have done a complete U-turn.

“The current financial difficulties faced by the borough still bear the hallmark of the former Lib Dem Administration’s poor financial management: an inadequate budget, record overspends; services cut to the bone; and no plan for putting borough finances back on a sound financial footing.

“Their record is dire,” he said.

by John Guinn
Local Democracy Reporter