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Opposition councillors criticise decisions behind 'inevitable' Royal Borough financial problems

Opposition figures have described the Royal Borough’s financial troubles as ‘inevitable’ after the council leader stated it was ‘highly likely’ a Section 114 notice would have to be filed by the end of the financial year.

Speaking to the Advertiser last week, council leader Cllr Andrew Johnson (Con, Hurley and Walthams) predicted that the coronavirus crisis would cost the borough £14million.

A S114 notice is an emergency measure which bans all new council expenditure except for statutory services for protecting vulnerable people.

Reacting to the revelations, Cllr Lynne Jones (OWRA, Old Windsor), leader of the local independents, said: “I expect the COVID-19 costs have just caused the inevitable to happen quicker. They (the Conservative administration) can’t, however much they spin it, blame COVID-19 for their problems.

“You couldn’t have been prepared for coronavirus but you could have had reserves that reflected a risk of something like this happening. We would have been pushed over the edge if there had been another flooding, or if there’d been something that went wrong with the regeneration of Maidenhead.

“I actually think Andrew Johnson was given a bit of a poisoned chalice, and he’s doing his level best to drag us out of it, without saying how bad the decision making was.”

Cllr Simon Werner (Lib Dem, Pinkneys Green), leader of the Royal Borough Liberal Democrat Group, also felt that coronavirus was not the root of the problem.

He said: “We knew about this financial crisis before COVID-19 was even heard of.

“Now they seem to be trying to disguise their incompetence by saying it's all the fault of coronavirus.

“They need to take responsibility, they got the council in this financial mess, they have run down the reserves so that one small emergency would send them over the edge, and coronavirus is more than a small emergency.”

Cllr Jones added that she felt councillors were only given ‘half the story’ when Cllr Johnson briefed them on the financial situations in weekly conference meetings.

She said: “Historically there have been horrendous issues with transparency, and I think it takes time for that to change.

“We’ve got to the stage now that the information isn’t held back when you ask for it, but you have to know what to ask for in the first place.

“We were verbally told that there was a letter going to central government that said that we were going to struggle without funding. The mention of Section 114 was left out.

“I wouldn’t have been surprised that it included it, I just think it should have been mentioned, there was no need for it not to be.”

In response to the opposition comments, Cllr Johnson said: “Since this crisis started, we have had weekly briefings for all members of the council where I give an overview of the current operational response to COVID-19.

“I have been very clear as to the financial impact that COVID-19 is having on the authority. For the last two or three weeks, I have been very clear that the estimated figure is £14million.

“All the members that joined the call have been very much kept in the picture, it’s not the case that the administration is briefed before the opposition, everyone is briefed real-time.

“I am sure the members have considered that it will be a significant financial shock, I didn’t think it would be a surprise that we would be in S114 territory.

“I have been very careful to not start bandying about S114s, we are not now in a place where we are actively considering it and the impact it has on staff morale is not great.

“We are looking to carry out the savings outlined in the budget and continue as normal.”

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