WOKING Borough Council’s towering levels of debt will come under further scrutiny this week with the arrival of a review team from the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

Government concerns over the council’s borrowings, forecast to reach £2.4billion by 2024-25, were first raised with the then ruling Conservative group in May last year by Kemi Badenoch, who at that time was minister for levelling up.

Subsequently the minister for Local Government, Paul Scully, who has also since moved on, expressed similar misgivings, noting not only the scale of the debt but “the complexity of the council’s financial position”.

The Government's levelling-up team are likely to be busy. There was certainly little comfort to be had at last Thursday’s meeting of the council Executive, when a progress report introduced by Cllr Dale Roberts, the Liberal Democrat portfolio holder for finance and economic development, painted another stark picture of the council’s position.

“Officers are putting in place unprecedented controls over expenditure,” he said. “Senior officers are engaging with the Government-appointed review team. Work on stabilising reserves and identifying cost savings is progressing, but the budget set in February will involve significant spending reduction.”

Cllr Roberts’ theme was taken up by Cllr Will Forster, the deputy leader of the Lib Dem group.

“A good summary, but equally an awful one,” said Cllr Forster. “Every time papers for the Medium Term Financial Strategy are brought forward the position just gets worse and worse.

“There really is no money left. We can only set a budget by doing what we don’t want to do, It’s just awful, we’re powerless.

“It is not within our gift to cope with this level of debt, we need Government help, we need outside help to manage the debt, we’re not capable of managing the debt.

“Why are we so overwhelmed by the level of debt?”

Attempting to quantify the numbers, Cllr Roberts added: “Our annual services to residents cost about £40 million, so the debt is 60 times our spending on those services.

“We receive about £10 million in council tax and another £30 million in commercial revenues, but we’re under significant pressures to achieve our ambitions for commercial revenue.

“We’re simply dwarfed by the level of borrowing.

“We should be worried. The situation is serious and has been for some time.

“Everyone I speak is committed to finding a constructive way through this, but it isn’t going to be easy.

“We can’t see what the solution is, and, trust me, we have some very good people looking at this.

“There is no evident, obvious, simple, straightforward solution.”