Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
It wasn’t a huge surprise when I learned that Slough council had declared itself bankrupt. As I’ve pointed out in this column, the authority’s frivolous spending and poor financial accounting practices all contributed to its downfall.
This being the third English council bankruptcy, it’s worth analysing exactly what went wrong for Slough. In the past, senior council executives and leaders have often pointed the finger at cuts in central government funding. But interestingly, that narrative doesn’t seem to be taking hold this time, perhaps for obvious reasons.
If we look at historical council tax data, it’s clear for all to see that Slough council shouldn’t have a revenue problem. In 1996-97 it increased council tax by 17.8 per cent; only four councils raised rates by a higher amount in this year. Increases of 10 per cent or greater followed in the next two years. Then 9.9 per cent in 2002-03 before another astronomical increase of 17.5 per cent in 2003-04.
Previous research by the TaxPayers’ Alliance showed that between 1997 and 2017, Slough’s council tax bills increased by 72 per cent in real terms – 15 per cent higher than the average for England. But if you look at Band D bills from 1995 to the present day, they have nearly doubled from £900 (inflation adjusted) to £1,795.
And what have residents got for their hard-earned council tax in recent years? Sticking out like a sore thumb is the £49 million spent on a new office complex complete with “innovative collaboration spaces, a tranquillity room, innovation room and even an exercise studio.” In 2019, the TPA’s Town Hall Rich List revealed Slough’s outgoing chief executive at the time, Roger Parkin, pocketed total remuneration of nearly £600,000 – the highest in the country. Then, almost unbelievably, in November last year, councillors awarded themselves a pay rise despite the devastating effects of the pandemic on many Slough residents.
Perhaps most comically of all, the council created a snazzy website with the phrase “Let’s Be World Class” adorning one of its pages. I’m still waiting on a response from the council as to the cost of the website, but judging by the flashy graphics and slick animated videos it can’t have been cheap. The council proclaims how well it has coped with Covid as it “redesigned [its] world class leadership structure” and “Launched the Brilliant Basics ways of working framework.” Clearly, there is more work to be done to justify these bold claims.
In a leaked internal video to Slough council staff, chief executive, Josie Wragg, made clear the council had endured a “challenging situation based on poor financial practice over a number of years” adding “as the closing of the 18-19 accounts progressed, the exposure of the financial challenges was starting to become apparent.” Additionally in an email to staff, Ms Wragg wrote, “Since April our new ‘A-team’ of financial experts, together with the Leadership team, have been undertaking a review of our finances, financial processes and other related matters.” Begging the question, was the previous ‘A-team’ up to scratch? Seemingly not.
We know from a recent audit report that the council’s accounting practices were lacking. The wait for the publication of the draft statement of accounts for 2019-20 goes on and 2018-19’s accounts are still unaudited. For me though, not enough attention has been focussed on Neil Wilcox, the former Section 151 officer at Slough council. He announced his resignation in April this year supposedly to “spend more time with family and friends” but the timing is interesting to say the least.
In an email sent on April 22nd to Slough council staff, Wilcox said, “for 2021/22 the Council balanced its budget”. Yet just a couple of weeks ago, his replacement, Steven Mair, filed a Section 114 notice for bankruptcy and declared the budget will not be deliverable after all.
So several key questions remain unanswered. Did Wilcox know about the massive black hole in the council’s finances? If he did, when was the discovery made and did he raise the alarm with chief executive Josie Wragg? And if Ms Wragg was made aware, what action did she take? Conversely, if Mr Wilcox was not aware of the looming financial armageddon then I think it would be fair to ask whether he was fit for the role and worthy of his six-figure taxpayer-funded salary.
Council tax is a huge burden on households and many feel short-changed when it comes to frontline services. Local authorities have a tremendous duty of care to taxpayers’ money. This sorry saga raises serious concerns about Slough’s management structure and whether checks and balances were in place. Lessons must be learned and those responsible held to account. The nation can’t afford to see a fourth, fifth, or even sixth council go bankrupt.