Woking Borough Council’s budget for 2024-25 was approved by councillors at a sombre Extraordinary Full Council meeting on Monday (March 4).

The decision was made possible by the offer and acceptance of a £785 million government support package and £8.4 million of service reductions and savings.

Twenty-five councillors were present: Lib Dems supported the budget (with one abstention), three Conservatives, both Labour councillors and one Independent voted against.

Several councillors were unable to attend, and Cllr Ian Johnson (Lib Dem) was conflicted out of the budget paper due to his family link with Citizens Advice Woking.

The bail-out, which relied on the council agreeing a 10 per cent council tax rise, includes £454m for the servicing of its debt, known as Minimum Revenue Payments, and £331m in “capitalisation directives”, where a council can treat revenue costs as capital costs.

The increase in council tax means that a Band D household will pay £289.43 a year, an increase of £26.31. The borough’s council tax charge will be added to Surrey County Council’s 4.99% increase (£1,758.60 for Band D households), and Surrey Police and Crime Commissioner’s 4.19% increase (£323.57 for Band D households).

“Band D properties will pay an extra 50p a week for Woking council services,” said Cllr Ann-Marie Barker, leader of Woking Borough Council. “Surrey is asking people to pay an extra £1.60 a week.

“Recognising cost of living pressures we agreed a £100k hardship fund to help those struggling to pay council tax.”

Under the Government agreement, the council will also be given money to turn around its “currently negative” reserves, with a view to this acting as a buffer in future years.

Woking declared itself effectively bankrupt last year with billions in debt and deficit. The most significant loans the council took out were to the ThamesWey Group, a wholly-owned subsidiary, and Victoria Square Woking Ltd.

As of December 2023, the council had made £338m of loans to ThamesWey Housing to provide homes in the borough, £85m to ThamesWey Energy and ThamesWey Central Milton Keynes to further its energy efficiency policies, £195m to the ThamesWey group relating to the Sheerwater project, and £713m to Victoria Square Woking Ltd for the town centre regeneration project.

The council also owed £170m in 2024-25 alone, nearly 10 times Woking’s net revenue budget of £19m, in minimum debt servicing.

“This budget is a step on our journey to a council that lives within its means and focuses on delivering for residents,” Cllr Barker added. 

“It doesn’t solve the debt problem but it was a necessary staging point on the road to recovery. If we hadn’t set a budget we would not have been able to deliver services to residents. 

“No meals on wheels, no daycare, no pool or leisure centres, no bins collected and no streets cleaned.”