Council staff working around the clock to find ways of plugging its £12 million black hole - rises in parking charges, job cuts and council tax increases are all possibilities
“This is without doubt the biggest most serious challenge we have ever faced here at Harborough District Council" said the leader
Council chiefs in Harborough are working flat out to plug a £12 million black hole in the cash-strapped authority’s finances.
Top officers and leading councillors at the district council are pulling out all the stops and working round the clock in a bid to head off the biggest financial crisis they have ever faced.
The council could be forced to axe staff while local people will have to to fork out more Council Tax and green bin subscription fees while car parking charges are also set to increase.
Cllr Phil King, who leads Harborough council, is also imploring Prime Minister Boris Johnson to give them a lot more money now after they have been hit for six by the 11-month Covid-19 pandemic.
And he warned in a wide-ranging, searingly-honest 65-minute interview with the Harborough Mail that a tough special notice could be imposed on the council banning any new expenditure if they do not “get their house in order”.
“This is without doubt the biggest most serious challenge we have ever faced here at Harborough District Council.
“It is very stressful for all of us – and I don’t mind admitting that it’s giving me sleepless nights,” admitted Cllr King.
“It is a truly scary scenario that we are trying to get to grips with here.
“I just want to tell the people of Harborough what we are dealing with here.
“And I’m not going to pull any punches.
“We have to deal with the day to day reality after almost a year of spending seriously outstripping income.
“But I can assure every single man, woman and child in Harborough that we are battling day and night, tooth and nail to plug this cash shortfall and get back on to an even footing.”
The worried Conservative council boss said the enormous size of the crisis has hit home as they strive to hammer out their key four-year ‘medium term financial strategy’.
“Initially the picture was even worse – we were staring down the barrel at being £16 million short over the next four years.
“We have managed to cut that down to £12 million by putting up the cost of having your green bin garden waste emptied,” said Cllr King.
“So you can just imagine how much time and effort we are putting in fighting to get that figure down how ever we can.
“We’ve also brought in experts from outside to help us to solve this crisis.
“We are poring over every possible means to save money and to become leaner and meaner right across the board.
“Very sadly, that could well mean having to make some of our first-class staff redundant – or at least not replacing employees who are going.
“Either way we will, of course, inevitably end up with a smaller team.
“We have, along with every other local council in the UK, been battered by the shattering coronavirus pandemic.
“We have been spending a lot more money to support people while income from vital sources such as sports centre and car parking has plunged.
“We are talking about an awful lot of money – and this is a huge headache for all of us here at the council,” said Cllr King.
In an attempt to claw back some cash, the council is set to hike their share of the Council Tax by £5 for Band D householders.
And the cost of parking your car in a Harborough council car park for two hours is poised to jump from £1 to £1.50.
“It’s highly regrettable.
“We don’t enjoy doing this but we have got absolutely no choice.
“We have to analyse and scrutinise every which way of cutting back, saving money and generating more income,” insisted Cllr King.
“The only thing off the table are our waste services – they are protected 100 per cent.
“They are our red line.
“We will all still have our black and blue bins emptied every fortnight.
“This is the most ambitious operation we have ever launched – and our most critical.
“We have to get it right and we are determined to.”
Making an impassioned plea to Premier Boris Johnson for emergency support, Cllr King said: “The Government said at the start of this crisis last year that they would back local councils like ours to the hilt as we were stretched to the limit.
“But they have backtracked from that.
“How can we do our jobs on the ground as local government properly if we have not got enough money?
“I’d tell Boris if I could talk to him now – please give us another £3 million a year.
“This isn’t party political – but right now every single penny counts.
“It’s just simply a case of where we are at after this devastating pandemic – and it’s a very scary outlook.
“We have been lobbying our MPs but so far we are no further forward.”
The under-pressure council leader warned that the authority could be effectively financially handcuffed by 2023 or 2024 if they cannot balance the books.
“We would have quite a rare Section 114 Notice slapped on us.
“That would stop us splashing out on any new expenditure.
“Whether it’s installing a new front door at Harborough Leisure Centre or even a member of staff going out in their car on official business.
“It would be stopped,” warned Cllr King.
“The order would be served by our Section 151 officer.
“Under the 1972 Local Government Act they are empowered and entrusted to make sure that we take proper care of our financial affairs.
“It’s a very serious state of affairs and it would have a massive impact on the way that we work every day of the week.
“Our cash reserves are healthy.
“We have just under £14 million.
“But there’s no way that we want to just burn through that over the next four years in an effort to make this work.
“If we blow all of that we’d have not a penny to fall back on on rainy days,” said Cllr King.
“I am optimistic that we will avoid this.
“But we are not out of the woods yet – there’s a long way to go.
“So I am urging everybody across Harborough to understand what we are doing here and to get behind us every step of the way as we fight this desperate battle.”