The dam on Woking Borough Council’s failing finances finally burst yesterday as it effectively declared bankruptcy with debts forecasted to hit £2.6billion and a deficit of more than £1bn.
The vast majority of the black hole was amassed on the back of a borrowing spree between 2016 and 2019 when the council was under the stewardship of its former chief executive, Ray Morgan.
Mr Morgan retired in March 2021 after 14 years at the helm and the Local Democracy Reporting Service, which supplies local political stories to our newspapers, went to visit him seeking his views on what happened, why it happened, and who should take responsibility for the council having to stop all spending it is not legally obligated to cover.
Mr Morgan first joined Woking Borough Council as director of financial services in April 1989. In May 2000 he was appointed an executive director and promoted to acting chief executive in 2005.
Mr Morgan was a key proponent of the town’s redevelopment strategy, kicking off with The Wolsey Place shopping centre in 2010 for £68 million. Four years later he declared developments including Victoria Square, were central to his plans to transform Woking into a city.
The debt to redevelop Victoria Square has spiralled to about £750million.
In March 2021, the council applied to the Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities (DLUHC) for Exceptional Financial Support (EFS), but at that time Mr Morgan, in his statement to DLUHC, said he remained confident the council’s financial strategy was able to withstand normal economic cycles.
Mr Morgan declined to give a formal interview over the matter when approached the day after the council issued its Section 114 notice declaring it was broke and instead issued the following statement.
Speaking to the LDRS, he said: “I have not been party to any of the deliberations recently made by the council and neither was I asked by it or others about any of the decisions that were taken by the council, following advice from officers and advisors, and, on a cross party basis, in respect of Victoria Square, Sheerwater and the replacement of Victoria Arch; which are the major investments by the council.
“As an official of the council, I was always happy to engage with your media colleagues to explain the council’s position and the reasoning behind the advice I and my colleagues gave to the council.
“However, as I am no longer employed by the council, I do not think it appropriate for me to engage in a public discussion when I am no longer in possession of the facts of the matter.”