Government Directs Improvement Notice to BCP Council Strained Relations and ‘Unfeasible’ Budget Plan
The Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) Council, known for contentious meetings and an alleged impractical budget plan, has been called upon by the government to bolster its operations. The council has been handed a ‘Best Value Notice’, reflecting its urgent need for improvement.
While the council agrees with the report’s findings and is taking steps to address them, questions linger over its fiscal management competencies.
Council-Officer Relations Sour
The Department for Levelling Up has cited strained relations between councillors and officers in recent years. “The nature of the meetings has been contentious, with an overwhelming number of complaints lodged to the standards committee,” they noted. Furthermore, the council’s medium-term financial plan has been deemed untenable due to its overambitious savings projections and tight delivery schedules.
Concerns Over ‘FuturePlaces
The government’s notice also spotlighted the council’s regeneration company, FuturePlaces, set up in 2021 as an area of concern. The government urged the council to revise its medium-term budgets urgently, implement training, and set clear priorities for FuturePlaces.
The warning signalled that a lack of improvement could result in statutory measures being enforced by ministers.
Financial Shortfalls Lead to Government Intervention
This notice follows an external review of the council’s finances, prompted by BCP’s plea for additional financial support in 2022. The council is controlled by a Liberal Democrat-led alliance following local elections in May.
Earlier this year, council officers dismissed a Conservative plan to limit the council tax increase to 2.99%, well below the maximum permissible increase of 4.99%. This proposal was subsequently discarded after the resignation of Tory council leader Drew Mellor.
In another worrying development, the council recently revealed it is contemplating the future funding of the Bournemouth Air Festival due to a projected £44m deficit in the 2024-25 council budget.
Council’s Response and Further Action
Graham Farrant, the council’s chief executive, acknowledged the challenges they face align with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ findings. He stated, “We are acting on the recommendations and are confident we are making the necessary improvements to put the council on a sustainable financial footing.”
However, the question remains whether the council has the financial acumen necessary to address these challenges independently. The severity of the financial deficit was such that in 2022 the government had to rescue the council through its Exceptional Financial Support (EFS) scheme.
Paul Scully MP, Minister of State at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, outlined the terms of the EFS support, emphasizing the need for the council to devise a comprehensive plan to address its budget gap and submit it by September 2022. Additionally, the council was directed to undergo an external assurance review of its finances and governance arrangements.
In his letter to the council, Mr. Scully reiterated his grave concerns over the council’s current financial trajectory. He urged the council to consider the necessary actions required to ensure the council remains in a sustainable position. However, the effectiveness of these measures remains to be seen and will undoubtedly have significant implications for the residents of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole.
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