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Woking Papers on Decisions Which Led to Multi-£billion Debt to be Published Soon

Published on: 25 Jan, 2024
Updated on: 26 Jan, 2024

By Chris Caulfield

local democracy reporter

The financial decisions made in private in the run-up to Woking Borough Council’s bankruptcy are likely be published in March, forensic accountants have said.

Grant Thornton LLP has been combing the council’s books after the Secretary of State for Levelling up, Housing, and Communities intervened in May 2023 as the borough toppled towards going broke.

Senior councillors pledged to publish the documents, reports, and decisions that had been taken behind closed doors dating back to 2016 when the bulk of the £2 billion of borrowing began.

The council has finished its internal review and said it is ready to publish the papers in the interests of increasing “decision-making transparency” but has been told to hold fire until auditors have completed their own investigations.

Grant Thornton’s Joanne Brown said: “We have now concluded the fieldwork for our value-for-money governance review and are progressing finalising the report.

“Due to the nature of our reporting, we need to undertake various consultations with interested parties before the report can be finalised and published, in line with our obligations under the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014.

“The report will be made public when it has been finalised, which is now likely to be in March 2024.

“We appreciate that this may be frustrating for residents of Woking, the council and other stakeholders who are keen to see the report’s findings, but the approach we are following is both important and necessary.

“We support the council’s approach to improve transparency on decision making, including publishing historic Part 2 documents, and that the timing of their publication should align to the publication of our value for money governance review report.”

Part 2 documents are confidential – in the majority of cases this is because they contain commercially sensitive information that could potentially jeopardise a council’s ability to maximise income.

Traditionally these are kept private and not made available to either the press or the public.

The most recent Part 2 papers the council issued were linked to the sale of the former Mclaren building in Victoria Gate – where the precise value of the deal had been kept secret.

According to the council’s statement, it is publishing historical papers so people can better understand the decisions and actions that have significantly contributed to the financial challenges it faces today.

Both the Grant Thornton Value for Money review report and the Part 2 papers will be made publicly available on the council’s website.

Woking asset disposal

Woking Borough Council has laid out its latest cost-cutting measure as it confirmed for the first time, how its centres, pavilions, and halls would be offloaded.

The council has a number of assets it can no longer afford to run and is hoping the community steps in to fill the void.

That process has now been spelt out following its Thursday, January 18, Executive committee.

To qualify for consideration groups must already be established in Woking and ensure the site is used for the benefit of the community.

What will not be allowed are any organisations that operate solely for faith, religious or political purposes.

Leases will be between three and 25 years, depending on the asset and the circumstances of the community group.

Councillors believe this would save the bankrupt borough money while at the same time preserving valuable sites.

The council is already said to be in discussion with a number of groups but that it was too early to name any interested parties.

Cllr Anne-Marie Barker

Borough leader Councillor Ann-Marie Barker said: “It’s really positive to note that we’ve got some fantastic groups of people and some great ideas that I hope will continue to drive life and even bring more life to these valuable community assets.”

Community asset transfers are not easy options and take time and effort to proceed but the rewards can be “significant” as valued sites and services are retained under the control of the community, committee papers read.

There are already several non-council sites run by the community, including Old Woking community centre, the Goldsworth Park community hall, and the village halls in Horsell and Pyrford, the meeting heard.

Although it is the first time Woking Borough Council has gone down this path, community asset transfers have been used by about three-quarters of all local authorities, Cllr Dale Roberts told the meeting.

Cllr Barker said: “I’m very excited about the community asset transfer process. It’s part of the work that we are doing to say ‘we’ve got to make some changes to what we deliver as a council’.

“We can’t just be spending money on anything and everything, we can’t be handing out money to anything and everybody even though they might be  providing a fantastic service.

“In our financial situation it’s not possible.

“We are finding alternative ways, different ways, to move forward, keep things going and keep community active.

She added: “We will be there to help and support people but we won’t be funding many things and we won’t be running many things that we ran in the past.”

Deputy leader, Cllr Will Forster said: “We can’t do as much as we used to, that doesn’t mean we close community centres, board them up, sell them on.”

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