Fringe Box



Commissioners Control Woking Communications While Discretionary Fees Hiked

Published on: 5 Dec, 2023
Updated on: 6 Dec, 2023

By Chris Caulfield

local democracy reporter

“Unelected bureaucrats” sent to Woking Borough Council by Michael Gove’s Levelling Up department have a “potential gagging order” over the bankrupt authority’s press releases and media statements.

Commissioners were appointed to work with Woking Borough Council earlier this year when its dire financial situation materialised.

Their job was to work with the heavily indebted council as it worked its way through spending, jobs and service cuts in order to balance its books and begin its £2.6 billion debt recovery.

Now it has emerged that the commissioners also have had the final say on releases to the media and any public statements from the council for the past six months and will continue doing so after councillors formalises its corporate press and media protocol.

It means the commissioner team sent in from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities “has the opportunity to review and provide comment on press releases and public statements before they are issued to the media”, according to Woking Borough Council’s latest meeting report.

Statements will be “sent to the commissioner team for their approval” before release, the report adds.  If they fail to get back in a timely manner, only then does it fall to the borough’s chief executive.

Cllr Adam Kirby

The change to the council’s constitution was expected to be passed without fanfare or debate until it was picked up on by Cllr Adam Kirby (Lib Dem, Horsell).

He said: “The authority to represent residents comes from only, and from no other greater power, than their vote for us, in the media or anywhere else.

“Zero (people) voted for our respected commissioners and I don’t think it’s proper that they have a formalised role in our media protocol.

“It’s right that we consult with them but the final decision must be with officers and the Executive, and only officers and the Executive in representing this council.”

He said the new protocol “potentially in its current form amounts to some kind of gagging order by a central government department”.

“The commissioners should not be a permanent part of the council and I don’t want to embed, formalise their position in the formal media statements of this council.” he told the Thursday, November 30 full council meeting.

“That democratic deficit goes hand in hand with the financial deficit and I think that’s very very important.”

Cllr Kirby added: “An Executive of any colour or any combination of parties or combination of independents here shouldn’t have its media statements vetoed by unelected bureaucrats in central government.”

The meeting heard that the process had effectively already been in place for six months and that the protocol would make it clearer to residents.

Cllr Josh Brown (Con, Byfleet and West Byfleet) said: “Formalising this in public record makes it more transparent and accessible to actually see what the process is.”

Cllr Anne-Marie Barker

Addressing concerns, including moves to have the commissioners removed from the process altogether.  Leader of the council Cllr Ann-Marie Barker said:  “I can see where people are coming from, I can see their concerns but we are in the situation we are in.

“We are under government intervention and the government gives the commissioners a certain number of powers.

“At the end of the day, there are a number of matters where if push came to shove the commissioners can overrule us as a council.

“That has not happened, I would like that never to happen.

“I would like us to make our own determinations going forward.

“But commissioners are consulted on press releases; they don’t write press releases.”

She added: ‘We are in intervention, this is what happens, the reality is it works well, it’s a good process and we don’t have any issues with it.”

The policy will be reviewed on an annual basis as well as after the commissioners have left – currently set to be in five years’ time.

Discretionary fee hike

The hiking up of fees for “critical” services by bankrupt Woking Borough Council is expected to hit vulnerable people in the pocket.

Fees for meals on wheels and daycare have been increased in an effort to save them after councillors voted through the inflation-busting rises on Thursday, November 30.

The council must ensure all services considered non-vital by the government are self-sufficient after it entered effective bankruptcy this year with a deficit of more than £1 billion and an overall debt expected to climb to £2.6 billion.

If non-statutory services do not cover their own costs, the council is under extreme pressure to stop them.

In total, the announced increases are expected to bring in an extra £1.4 million a year, below the £12 million in annual savings it has to find before the April 24 budget.

That gap adds pressure to high-profile council services such as Pool in the Park, and car parking where the fees and futures are still under consultation.

Leader of the council, Cllr Ann Marie-Barker, said: “I’m afraid I do have to take us back to why we are in the position of needing to propose these fee and charges increase today.

“The level of these increases has nothing to do with inflation, nothing to do with this administration, it is all to do with the financial situation of this council.

“We had government intervention in May. We declared section 114, the effective bankruptcy, in June.

“As a council we are paying £175,000 pounds every day to repay borrowing.

“That’s over £60 million pounds a year. That is the financial situation we are in.

“We need to find savings of £12 million pounds in order to set a balanced budget for next year.

“We need to increase the income from some of the services we provide. If we don’t, then we are not able to provide those services.”

Share This Post

Responses to Commissioners Control Woking Communications While Discretionary Fees Hiked

  1. Ron Brandman Reply

    December 6, 2023 at 11:36 am

    The commissioners were appointed by Westminster because of the incompetence of Woking Borough Council (WBC) over many years.

    Plainly, WBC cannot be trusted and councillors only have their eye on re-election so their press releases are hardly going to reflect a candid and truthful position on anything.

    They should stop whining about the commissioners powers and get get on with dealing with the mess that they alone created.

    If the councillors had done their job properly and publicly called the council to account for their reckless financial management they would not be in the position they are in today.

    So a councillor whining about unelected commissioners monitoring council press releases is a bit rich.The credibility gap of the council is massive. The councillors have many other avenues to make their views known.

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy. All comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *