Fringe Box



Woking to Become ‘Smaller Council’ as Drastic Cuts to Services Being Planned

Published on: 21 Jun, 2023
Updated on: 23 Jun, 2023

By Chris Caulfield

local democracy reporter

Drastic cuts to staffing, services and budgets will be made and Woking reduced to a smaller council, as part of the bankrupt authority’s long road to recovery.

Woking Borough Council’s offices. Image Chris Caulfield

The news was delivered by Woking Borough Council’s chief executive Julie Fisher during a sombre extraordinary meeting on Tuesday, June 20, to discuss the pathway out of its multi-billion pound debt.

The meeting heard that any recovery hopes the borough council had rested on convincing the Government it has done everything to get its “house back in order”.

That includes disposing of assets, cuts to spending, slashing budgets and becoming a “smaller council”, and that it was going to be very difficult particularly on staff.

Funding the Victoria Square development by Woking Borough Council was part of the problems leading to the council’s bankruptcy. Google Maps.

Cllr Ann-Marie Barker (Lib Dem, Goldsworth Park), who took over the leadership of the council in 2022, said the council “had got used to living beyond its means”, that “we need a reset” and that she was “very sorry”.

She became the authority’s leader three years after the majority of the council’s debt now expected to climb to £2.6 billion, was amassed.

Some of the measures agreed by the council include bridging the council’s £9 million budget gap, bringing forward savings and keeping spending controls in place ‘for some years”, and disposing of its assets.

Which assets it sells has not been decided.

The council borrowed an estimated £750 million to develop Victoria Square but that has been written down in value to about half that – while its assets overall are estimated to have dropped by about £600 million.

Once it has demonstrated that it has made all possible spending cuts and savings, the council agreed it would approach the Government to explore the prospect of financial support.

The spending cuts have been forced on the council after it declared itself effectively bankrupt on June 7, issuing a section 114 notice saying its expected £2.6 billion debt and £1.2 billion deficit was completely unsustainable and could no longer balance its budget.

Cllr Kevin Davis (Con, Heathlands) added that he desperately hoped the council would do its best by its staff, particularly those in non-statutory roles where most of the cuts would fall.

Deputy council leader Will Forster (Lib Dem, Hoe Valley) said in the meeting: “People are really angry, disappointed and fearful of the future.”

He added: “Local people are quite rightly wanting to understand how a small borough council reached over £1 billion deficit.

“We need to start discussions with the Government soon, to seek financial support as officers have been clear that the council has no means of funding the financial deficit on its own but I understand we need to earn the trust of the Government and regain the trust of our residents.

“We need to put our own house in order and clearly show that we can live within our means in the future.”

About 20 councillors spoke during the debate. Amid the finger pointing across the aisles were questions of accountability and how they could protect residents from what was to come.

Speaking first and presenting the details of the council’s section 114 notice, was Woking’s interim chief financial officer Brendan Arnold who said the council’s £1.2 billion deficit was now “understood” but further work needed that would likely change the financial figures.

He warned that the finances were “more than likely to get worse than get better”.

Summing up the meeting, Mrs Fisher said: “I do think it will take all out our collective efforts to address our challenges and build a robust plan for recovery

“I understand that there is anger, I think the words that were used, frustration and disappointment I absolutely do understand that and I think there will be an opportunity for members to input into the review that will be undertaken by (accounting firm) Grant Thorton independently.

“But it is really important that this is done, that we actually work together on the recovery plan moving forward.

“I think the scale and complexities of the challenges that we face will still require us to build the capacity and capability in the council that is not quite there yet in order to move the recovery forward at pace.

“At the same time we will need to reshape our services in order to be a smaller council in the future and that’s going to be a very difficult balance to strike particularly with our staff.”

The council agreed with the published recommendations

They were to: 

Begin the process bridging the council’s £9 million budget gap.

Keep spending controls in place and for them to remain a feature of how the council conducts its business for some years.

Bring forward revised savings

Note the development of a financial recovery plan.

Quarterly reports of the medium term financial strategy.

Bring housing revenue account into balance and  create a 30 year business plan.

Dispose of assets.

Approach the Government to explore the prospect of financial support.

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