Guildford councillors have been warned about facing harder cuts and more difficult decisions if they do not “get on with” the process of overhauling the authority’s finances.
The council’s former leader said he was getting “increasingly concerned about the urgency” needed to tackle issues in the council’s budget.
But he warned a meeting of the council on Wednesday (August 30) that it was “not easy” to make the cuts his administration made when in power including to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, to Citizens’ Advice and getting rid of a car and chauffeur for the deputy mayor.
Councillor Joss Bigmore (Residents for Guildford and Villages, Merrow) was council leader for a little over two years in the previous Lib Dem and R4GV coalition, before the Lib Dems took control of the council in May’s elections.
Cllr Bigmore said: “The more you delay, the harder those cuts have to be, and we need to get on with it.
“Because we now have effectively over £4 million of annualised savings to find in eight months, and that is not going to be easy.
“So please, can we get on with it and find out what we’re going to do because the longer we keep going, the more money we’re going to be spending that we can’t afford.”
He said the council at the start of the year was looking at an in-year deficit of £1.6m and a year to solve it, which had now increased to a £2.6m issue and only eight months to solve it.
The issues have worsened since a review of the council’s finances revealed that overspending in the previous financial year was continuing into the current year.
It comes after a £10m accounting error was discovered relating to government grants during Covid being allocated in the wrong column and making it look like the council had more in its savings than it really had.
While officers have warned a section 114 notice, effectively declaring bankruptcy, may need to be issued this year, they hope to avoid it and plan to bring a full recovery plan to the council in October.
Cllr Bigmore said: “Let’s start making some decisions so they don’t have to be even more difficult.”
Wednesday’s meeting also saw Richard Bates confirmed as the new finance chief at both Guildford and Waverley councils, which agreed to start sharing staff in 2021 as a way to save both authorities money.
Mr Bates, who the councils are paying a recruiter £927 a day for, is on an interim contract for six months while the search for a permanent replacement continues.
He told councillors that in his first few weeks in the role he had identified additional risks, and was making his way through talking each department to get a clearer picture of the financial situation at Guildford.
With overspends continuing in areas including utility costs and on consultancy and agency spending, he told councillors that risks around consultancy spending were “probably less than they were two weeks ago”.
Mr Bates said: “It’s really important that I have the support both of officers and members in terms of actually delivering this plan for you.
“It’s really important that our staff and our residents actually see we are treating this very seriously and we are dealing with this immediately.”
The interim executive head of finance said he was aware of 46 other councils in the country in a similar position to Guildford.
On the importance of avoiding issuing a section 114 notice, Mr Bates told councillors: “Clearly nobody here wants to have a situation whereby those future decisions are taken out of your control.”
The council’s leader, Cllr Julia McShane (Lib Dem, Westborough) said it was important for openness and transparency that the council acted in a “very careful and managed way but equally urgent”.
She added: “We are getting on with it. We’re doing everything we can as quickly as we can, but equally everything that we do has to be done within the context of accurate information.”
Councillors voted to endorse the first issue of the officers’ financial recovery plan which included an immediate external recruitment freeze, reducing budgets where allocated money hasn’t been spent previously and looking at the overall financial governance of the council.