More transparency needed on Council investments

December 18, 2020 7:00 PM
By Cllr Ian Marks - Finance spokesperson

Liberal Democrats are calling on Warrington Borough Council to be more open and transparent about their commercial investments, in line with the findings of a Government-commissioned review on the transparency of local government reporting. Our Finance Spokesperson, Councillor Ian Marks says:

wp-content/uploads/imarks.jpgAt the last Council meeting I asked the Labour administration about their policy on commercial investments. The Treasury Management report clearly states that HM Treasury will no longer allow local authorities to borrow money from the Public Works Loan Board to purchase commercial property if the aim is solely to generate an income stream. When I raised this at the Audit Committee I was told this wasn't a problem because we could borrow money more cheaply from elsewhere. This may be true, but goes against the spirit of Government thinking and must be questioned. I asked if this new ruling had affected any of our investment proposals.

We accept that the Council must find creative ways to generate income to safeguard basic services. There is still confusion and public concern about the risks being taken and the huge debts being accumulated. We know due diligence is carried out by external experts but Liberal Democrats believe some investments for pure commercial return are just too risky. This particularly applies if they are geographically far away from Warrington, not related to regeneration, or in commercial sectors that are nothing to do with local government.

In the autumn, a Government Review chaired by Sir Tony Redmond made a number of recommendations. One of its remits was to investigate the transparency of local authority financial reporting. It found that statutory accounts prepared by local authorities are "considered to be impenetrable to the public". There was a recommendation to appoint at least one independent suitably qualified person to Councils' Audit Committees. I am urging the Council to adopt this recommendation to assist with holding it to account.

COVID has shown the power of local bodies to deal effectively with problems, in contrast to national government that has made such a mess of everything it has touched. If national government funded councils properly we would not have this ongoing debate about the rights and wrongs of investments.

Cllr Ian Marks is Warrington Liberal Democrats' Finance Spokesperson