The Head of Strategic Finance and Property presented a report to the Committee on the corporate budget, covering the period July – September 2020. He briefly explained the main points and said going forward, he planned to present the capital programme to show in which year expenditure would occur, which was a departure from the Council’s previous practise.
The Chairman asked about the increased forecasted overspend and reduced rental income.
The Head of Strategic Finance and Property said at least two tenants had asked the Council for rent reviews, which were granted when it was established this was genuinely necessary. The Council had used the opportunity to add more favourable, flexible terms, such as implementing break clauses.
Councillor Ward-Booth asked why Legal and Democratic Services had overspent its budget on agency workers.
The Head of Legal and Democratic Services said there had been a need to pay for agency workers in the legal department due to a lack of solicitors. However, the Council was now advertising for four solicitor roles. Their recruitment should create a self-sufficient in-house team which would minimise the need for agency workers and result in an overall budget saving.
Councillor Ward-Booth asked whether these solicitors would be able to work on planning and building control legalities and reduce spending in this regard.
The Head of Legal and Democratic Services said that this was the aspiration, and the person specification for each role had been tailored to a particular need of the Council. Spending on specialist advice would not be totally eradicated, as expert counsel was sometimes necessary, but it was hoped spending on agency workers would be vastly reduced.
Councillor Corpe asked how the pandemic had prevented Millstream from purchasing properties in line with the business plan.
The Head of Strategic Finance and Property said the closure of estate agents in the early stages of lockdown had affected property purchases. However, Millstream had bought several properties in the previous two months and was recovering from the earlier slow down. The overall underachievement was also driven in part by the Council’s inability to find tenants for some properties in view of the pandemic, particularly retail spaces.
Councillor Ward-Booth said there was a shortage of suitable investment opportunities due to the pandemic.
Councillor Huggins said this highlighted the importance of the work of the Financial Sustainability Committee, the need for reserves, and a diverse investment portfolio.
Councillor Alder asked what the total savings would be from the Council’s use of LED lights.
The Head of Strategic Finance and Property said he would investigate and reply to Councillor Alder.
The Chairman asked about the projected use of reserves for 2020/21 and which reserve these funds would be taken from.
The Head of Strategic Finance and Property said he did not have details to hand of which reserves the funds would be taken from. However, in regard to spending on leisure centres, once the regeneration of the facilities was complete, the contractor would begin to pay the Council to operate the services rather than vice versa.
The Chairman asked whether the relatively high number of aged debtors was a concern.
The Head of Strategic Finance and Property said it was important to write off any debt which was going to be uncollectable, which was likely necessary in this instance. He also said he was planning to introduce behavioural economics practises, such as changing wording on reminder letters and calling debtors at unusual times.
The Chairman said the Committee had not been informed some of the debt had been considered uncollectable before. He and Councillor Huggins asked if the Committee would be given an indication of which debt(s) would be written off.
The Head of Strategic Finance and Property said it would take a number of months to work through the debts and consider which debts were recoverable, but Members would be updated when possible. He said that there was little value in chasing debt that was uncollectable, but the Council would resume chasing a debt if the debtor reappeared. Work was being done to automate the manual process of inputting information on debtors, which would result in efficiency savings and free up Officers to pursue the debtors.
RESOLVED – that the report be noted.