Council under fire over �137m debt

CONCERNS have been raised by a North Somerset councillor that the authority’s debt levels – currently totalling �137million – are ‘unsustainable’.

The financial burden taken on by North Somerset Council has risen steadily in recent years, including a �3million increase in the past 12 months.

Some of that money has gone on the current �9.7million revamp of its offices at Weston Town Hall, while �15million was spent buying and kitting out Clevedon’s Castlewood office block.

Liberal Democrat group leader Mike Bell this week questioned the wisdom of running up debts at a time when the authority is being forced to trim �47million from its service budgets in just four years.

Cllr Bell said: “The nation is in recession and going through a time of national and local government belt-tightening.

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“During this period, the council’s cash balances and reserves have been falling, but debts have been rising.

“I am very concerned that debt levels are fast becoming unsustainable, leading to higher bills for North Somerset’s council taxpayers for years to come.

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“I know many residents question the wisdom of spending millions of pounds on council offices at a time of budget cuts and austerity. When you think that most of this money will take decades to pay back, who can blame them?”

However, the council says its borrowing is not unusual, and remains well within its authorised limit of �202million.

A spokesman said: “The vital message here is that this money is being used for long-term investment which will benefit our residents.

“Our office amalgamation programme is very much an investment for the future.

“Basing council staff in two main locations at the Town Hall and Castlewood enables them to work more closely together and with our partners to deliver improved services for local people.”

North Somerset’s executive member for finance, Conservative Tony Lake, agreed - and took a swipe at Cllr Bell over his comments.

Cllr Lake said: “Cllr Bell’s criticism seems strange given his alternative budget proposal to borrow an extra �10million to fund one-off capital projects which offered no return or future savings.”

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