‘Why is council spending £1million on Civic Centre?’

Questions: Labour leader Coun Matthew Tomlinson
Questions: Labour leader Coun Matthew Tomlinson

South Ribble Council’s opposition leader says investing in council office improvements shouldn’t be a priority in this year’s budget.

The council is set to fork out more than £1million on work to its Civic Centre offices, in West Paddock, over the next five years, according to its recent budget proposals.

But Coun Matthew Tomlinson, leader of the Labour party, is concerned front-line services will be affected.

As reported in last week’s Guardian, South Ribble has taken a 25 per cent hit from its government grant for 2013/14, and is having to make £515,000 in savings, and use £635,000 from reserves to compensate.

Coun Tomlinson said: “The Conservatives are balancing the books by using more than £600,000 from reserves, and that level of subsidy can’t carry on for very long.

“If a householder takes £60 out of their savings every week to live, eventually they will run out of money, and it’s the same case here. I think the council can continue like that for about five years, but they’re also talking about more funding cuts in the future, which won’t help.”

He added: “The Labour group appreciates all the hard work from council staff, they’re doing the best they can under the circumstances, but at the end of the day, they’re having to take out huge amounts from savings.”

Leader of the council and leader of the Conservative party, Coun Margaret Smith, told the Guardian she was optimistic about South Ribble’s financial future, but Coun Tomlinson argued the Tories “cannot continue on this path for long”.

“We’re about to be hit by a triple whammy in the benefits system,” he said. “I’d be particularly worried if pressure was put on that service in South Ribble because of funding cuts.”

Last week’s budget proposals included freezing council tax for residents for 2013/14, following a controversial 2.5 per cent increase last year.

This time, the council is making use of a one-year Council Tax freeze grant from the government, worth £72,000.

Coun Tomlinson said: “I think people will welcome the council tax freeze for now, but there are no promises for next year.

“We don’t know if the grant will be available next year, and that would put even more pressure on the budget, but it’s certainly good news for the short-term.”

The council also wants to freeze car parking charges in the borough in a bid to support shoppers and traders, and says it will invest in community safety, such as CCTV cameras and police community support officers (PCSOs).

It also pledged to inject £100,000 a year for the next four years towards improving parks and open spaces, and has earmarked £290,000 for Leyland town centre’s ongoing regeneration scheme.

Coun Tomlinson added: “I welcome the park investments, but not all of that money comes directly from the council.

“A lot of it is from compensation from developers who have built housing estates in the area, and who have to give money to the council to help improve local amenities.

“The council has no choice on what to spend that cash on.

“I did notice that there is an awful lot of investment going towards improvements at the Civic Centre over the next few years though.

“I wouldn’t say it isn’t necessary, but I would ask how high of a priority it is.

“Maybe that money would be best spent elsewhere.”

In the last year, the council spent more than £500,000 on work to the Civic Centre council offices, including replacing windows, roofing works and a heating system replacement.

Over the next five years, it plans to spend a further £1,089,000 on improvements such as solar panels, a suite refurbishment, kitchen refurbishment and kitchen equipment, and a new lift.

The budget proposals will be discussed at a cabinet meeting at the Civic Centre tonight (Wednesday), and will be voted on by full council on February 27.