On Friday the county council voted to increase National Debt. Few people know that council debt counts towards the national figure, whilst Tory councillors frequently blame unpopular decisions on the National Debt, they never acknowledge their direct role in creating it.
Throughout the Labour Government, Tory county councillors claimed West Sussex wasn’t receiving large enough grant increases, only to start arguing in 2010 that public spending was too high.
West Sussex’s own debt is staggering. The official figure of over £400m masks the council’s real repayment obligations. The council owes over £700m in outstanding PFI contracts, in addition to operating a policy of borrowing £17m every year and ignoring that borrow-to-invest projects won’t always work out.
So even before last week’s meeting, the county’s debt was almost double its revenue and with plans already in place to borrow more over the next five years. Contrast this to Crawley’s Labour council, whose Budget Strategy not only avoids taking on debt but ensures future capital projects will help to generate additional revenue for the town.
Last Friday, county councillors agreed to increase the debt owed by West Sussex’s residents further. While a cap of £75m was mentioned in the paperwork it wasn’t written into the approved recommendation and since we were only allowed to approve a list of projects, their budgets only being an estimate, the council’s leadership now has legal authorisation to spend whatever people will lend them in completing the list.
Certainly some of the projects are probably necessary, but we can’t know for sure. Why? Because members weren’t even presented with business cases, only project titles with such informative names as ‘Integrated Transport Block.’
Instead of agreeing capital expenditure a year in advance, as is standard, the county council has given up control over what the Cabinet can borrow to spend for the next five years and have done so on a list of projects we effectively know nothing about.
Yet, despite members from across the chamber pointing out the problems with the proposal, of the political groups on the council only Labour were willing to oppose the measure.