Council ‘financially strong’ despite considerable borrowing, says leader

WOKING Borough Council remains “financially strong”, Ayesha Azad, the council leader, has said after the completion of an independent review.

The comprehensive statement, prepared by EY, the leading accountancy firm, details the council’s assets, liabilities and accounting position.

Council leader Ayesha Azad has said that Woking Borough Council remains financially strong despite considerable borrowing, following the completion of an independent financial review

“Whilst our borrowing is considerable, the council remains financially strong,” said Cllr Azad. “The council has assets valued greater than liabilities and its reserves are sufficient to manage short-term financial shocks.”

In one of its key statements, the report notes that at the latest year end, 31 March 2021, the council had net assets of £142 million, when its £1.99 billion of gross assets are compared with its liabilities.

It was commissioned following agreement of the Medium Term Financial Strategy by the council’s executive and a notice of motion agreed by council at its meeting on 27 July 2021.

Cllr Azad continued: “Woking is an ambitious and forward-thinking local authority. For more than a decade, through its financial strategy, it has successfully invested in residential, retail, office and leisure amenities that have transformed our borough.

“The report does raise points around our exposure to risk in certain markets and emphasises a number of issues that the council will give increased focus and attention.”

Those risks are addressed in the report, which records that “WBC’s investment property portfolio is primarily composed of office, retail and land [representing 81% of the portfolio].

“WBC have a sizeable investment asset portfolio that is highly exposed to conditions in the retail and office market.”

Cllr Azad’s discussion of the report has drawn criticism from the Lib Dems, who say councillors should have been consulted before the report was made public

This raises the question of whether longer-term trends are running against the council, given the make-up of its investment portfolio.

The report notes one estimate that “the underlying demand for UK office spaces to fall by 9% over the next three years – a significant risk to Woking given the size of its office portfolio”.

It also says: “WBC holds the third-largest outstanding debt balance of local authorities across the UK.”

Cllr Azad concluded: “This report will now be used to inform the council’s medium term financial strategy, which will be presented to council in March.”

Discussion of the review, however, only infuriated Ann-Marie Barker, the leader of the Liberal Democrats on the council.

“We were surprised and disappointed to see a council press release on the Financial Review ahead of any meeting of councillors,” she said.

“The tone of the release suggests a return to the arrogant and anti-democratic approach of the previous leadership.

“In July, the council agreed to a Liberal Democrat proposal to commission a full review of council finances, and EY was contracted to carry out the review. The report was received in December and is due to go to the council’s scrutiny committee on 24 January.

“Imagine our shock when we received a press release, widely quoting the leader of the council and completely pre-empting a review of the report by councillors.

“We do not believe at this stage Cllr Azad can say that everything in the garden is rosy. There are areas of concern in the report. We should be working through those matters as a council.”

* THE full report can be found on www.woking.gov.uk in the latest news section, or click on this link:https://moderngov.woking.gov.uk/documents/s21595/OSC22-006%20Appendix%202%20Woking%20Borough%20Council%20-%20Financial%20Review%20-%20Comprehensive%20Statement%20Final.pdf

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