Council still facing “difficult decisions” despite further £2.65m emergency funding

Bedford Borough Hall

Bedford Borough Council says they’re still facing “difficult decisions” due to the financial impact of coronavirus on the local area.

The comments come as the Government has announced how £1 billion of funding for councils announced earlier this month by the Prime Minister will be allocated.

Bedford is set to receive £2.65 million from this fund.

“Further much-needed Government funding is always welcome, with councils across the country facing a huge financial challenge,” said a Bedford Borough Council spokesperson.

“This year the Council is experiencing a situation where there is more expenditure than income…”

The Council have yet to say what those “difficult decisions” may be but Councillors have been quick to quell rumours of cuts to essential services or the sale of public assets like leisure facilities.

The council say they’re still waiting for the final details on the funding and if there will be any restrictions on what it can be spent on.

However, Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick has said that while most of the funding is to support councils’ response to the pandemic, some is to help cover the cost of reopening leisure centres.

Leisure centre reopening costs criticised

Bedford’s Mayor, Dave Hodgson, faced strong criticism earlier this month when he authorised a £632,000 payment to Fusion Lifestyle to get our leisure centres reopened.

Under Bedford Borough Council’s constitution, the Mayor’s ‘executive decision’ is exempt from ‘call-in’ meaning other Councillors were not able to scrutinise the decision.

Cllr Coombes, leader of the Bedford Borough Conservatives was not happy at the allocation of taxpayers’ money.

“I am astonished by the Mayor’s decision to give yet more public money to failed leisure operator Fusion…” he said.

Read: Anger as Mayor hands Fusion £632,000 without council agreement

The Mayor didn’t respond to our request for comment at the time of his executive decision.

But Cllr McMurdo, who oversees Leisure in the Borough, said the council had been calling on the government for financial support to offset the cost of reopening leisure facilities.

Speaking at the time, he said: “We are working with Fusion Lifestyle to ensure that they re-open further leisure centres for Bedford Borough residents as soon as possible.

“But we know that people will appreciate that this may come with an extra cost. We are calling on the Government to help us to meet that cost, with Council finances already under huge pressure.”

Robinson Pool
Robinson Pool is one of eight venues run by Fusion Lifestyle in Bedford and Kempston.

But while the Government has said this new funding can be used to support the reopening of leisure facilities, there’s been no confirmation if this applies to councils who outsource this responsibility to a third party.

“In common with a number of areas across the country, Bedford Borough Council’s leisure centres are run by a third-party company and it is not clear yet whether this funding will apply to these centres,” said the Borough Council spokesperson.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “It’s vital that we keep ourselves fighting fit through the winter months and local authority leisure centres are crucial to this.”

Funding also to support councils’ response to the pandemic

Local Government Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP said these funds are part of an unprecedented package of support for councils.

“This extra £1 billion funding will ensure that councils have the resources that they need over the winter and continue to play an essential role on the front line of our response to the virus while protecting the most vulnerable and supporting local businesses,” he said.

COVID-19 marshals, funded by further Government funding, have also now been rolled out in the town.

They’ll be providing advice and information on how to stay safe and slow the spread of coronavirus, and encourage the public and businesses to follow coronavirus measures.

The marshals will also “identify and support” businesses not following the guidelines, reporting them to Environmental Health, Public Health or the Police if necessary.

Read: Bedford Wetherspoons under fire (again) for lack of social distancing in queue

Mayor Dave Hodgson said: “Our Environmental Health Team have been out constantly visiting businesses, providing support, and ensuring that these COVID-19 secure guidelines are being followed, for all of our safety.

“These marshals will add to that, working with the public and businesses to educate and advise and make our town centre a safe and welcoming place to be.”

Despite the funding for these marshalls and their share of the £1 billion funding, Bedford Borough Council says it falls way short of what’s needed in reality.

“Next year alone, Bedford Borough Council is forecasting a budget gap of over £20million,” added the spokesperson.

“The financial impact of coronavirus has gone beyond what we have had to look at previously, and we are facing very difficult decisions.”

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