In questions put to them at their meeting on 28 January, Hart Council admitted it planned to spend £406K on the Shapley Heath white elephant in FY21/22. This comes at a time they are secretly planning cuts elsewhere. The question is as follows:
What is the anticipated level of spend on SHGV over each of the next 2 financial years?
They don’t know how much they are going to spend in FY22/23. This comes at a time when the Council is considering a confidential paper about cuts to services because of forecast deficits. They forecast a deficit of £381K in FY21/22 and an eye-watering £1,081K in FY22/23.
No real plans for regeneration of our urban centres post-Covid
We also asked them to set out their plans and budget for regenerating our urban centres after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many of our local businesses have struggled during the pandemic and some have sadly had to close, leading to permanent change to our high streets. What is the action plan and budget over the next 2 financial years to help Fleet and other urban centres recover and regenerate post-Covid?
The answer was fairly vague and somewhat misleading. They have received £1.947m from Government for business support and recovery. Apparently £500K is for the recovery component. This money has to be spent by 31 March 2022. The only paper we can find about their recovery plans can be found here. Most of the actions are completed and include the over £100K spent on the ill-fated closure of Fleet Road. It appears as though most of the remaining money is going to be spent by the Council on itself. Projects include an employee assistance programme, replacing the telephony system and SharePoint training. Whilst these might be worthy projects, they fall far short of what is required.
Our town centres have been permanently changed by Covid-19, and will need very significant investment to re-establish themselves as thriving communities. We can see from this that the Council is prioritising a white elephant project we don’t need over our existing businesses and communities.
Justification for Shapley Heath White Elephant Spending
We did ask them about their justification for continuing to spend at such high level on a project we don’t need when cuts are being contemplated elsewhere:
The latest budget monitoring statement (s4.3) considered by Cabinet in early January, shows a forecast overspend of £972K in 2020/21. The draft budget (s.9.4) considered by O&S shows a deficit of £381K for 2021/22 and a further £1,081K deficit for 2022/23. How can you justify hiring full-time staff and continuing to spend vast sums on an unnecessary Garden Community when core services are at risk of being cut?
The initial answer was very defensive. It was only when pushed that Councillor Cockarill provided more detail. The money they plan to spend on Shapley Heath is supposed to be coming from Central Government. However, they have set aside money from Reserves to fund Shapley Heath. Councillor Cockarill did admit that they might have to “reassess the priority” of Shapley Heath if the Government grant doesn’t materialise.
We did ask other more technical questions:
- Hart’s compliance with the Housing Delivery Test.
- Whether they are considering an early review of the Local Plan to take advantage of the new lower Government targets.
- If they will publish monthly project plans and status reports on the Shapley Heath projects.
The questions and answers can be found on the clips below.