Assurances made on city council finances after criticism of spending

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THE man in charge of Portsmouth City Council’s finances insists everything is being done to balance the books – despite fears the authority is facing bankruptcy.

Senior finance expert Chris Ward made assurances about the council’s cash resources following heavy criticism that the Tory administration was overspending and struggling to keep services from going under.

It comes as a report presented to the Tory cabinet earlier this month revealed that the council’s budget position had improved in 2015 by £1m.

Despite having to make up to £17m worth of savings – around £6m of which are due to the children and education and adult social care services spending more than they should – Mr Ward said these deficits would be ‘eradicated’ by the next financial year.

And he said £300,000 was being poured back into reserves so the council could remain in a safe position.

But Lib Dem rivals say in the 11 years the group ran the council, it only ever overspent once and that was by £93,000.

That figure was taken from separate data Mr Ward gave to the group’s leader, Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson.

Mr Ward said: ‘When we set the budget in February 2015, we were aware that achieving it presented financial challenges, especially for essential care services, and set aside contingency funding to accommodate any potential delays in these services achieving their in-year savings.

‘Overall, we’re not forecasting to overspend against this year’s budget, because we made provision to meet anticipated challenges.

‘When the budget was set, we planned for a £0.7m withdrawal from reserves.

‘With this forecast improvement of £1m, we now anticipate making a £0.3m contribution to reserves.’

Cllr Vernon-Jackson and Tory councillors clashed at the latest meeting of the full council over who was responsible for the council’s money problems.

Cllr Vernon-Jackson told members: ‘We are told this overspend is nothing really, it’s not a problem, the Lib Dems used to overspend.

‘But in the 11 years of a Lib Dem-run council, there was one overspend, of £93,000. And then we are told the Lib Dems spent all the money, all of the resources.

‘Yet a paper issued by Chris Ward says in the 11 years the Lib Dems ran the city, £15.4m was put back into reserves by the Lib Dems. And what happened to it?

‘Last year, this council blew £8m of the money saved up by Lib Dems.’

Yet Tory adult social care boss Luke Stubbs said that the Lib Dems had an extra £75m from the government to spend in 2009.

He added that if the same amount of cash was still available, then setting next year’s budget would have been ‘a doddle’.

Tory council leader Donna Jones hit back, saying that her administration was left with a £4m black hole in the budget when they came to power.

She said: ‘This is not a time to be taking pot shots at each other, but it’s important we note what the facts are.

‘We had a Lib Dem administration this time two years ago, making proposals to cut children’s services and to close children centres.

‘Cllr Vernon-Jackson also stood here and put down numbers he thought he could achieve in the children’s service by reducing the number of looked-after children.

‘Yet he failed year after year. The number of looked-after children has grown and he put added pressures on the children service budget.’