06:38PM, Tuesday 16 February 2021
The council-owned Odeon cinema, in Basingstoke
Slough Borough Council is seeking Government approval to sell off some of its assets to plug a £10 million hole in its 2021/22 budget.
In the upcoming financial year the council must repay £5.3million to a company in the town following a dispute over business rates dating back to 2010.
It also faces being lumbered with a £5.5million debt accrued by the Slough Children’s Services Trust if the trust switches to a council-owned operating model next year.
Discussions are now underway with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government which could see the council granted a capitalisation discretion.
If approved, this will allow the council to sell off any buildings it owns to fund the ‘exceptional’ one-off payments it owes next year.
Neil Wilcox, director of finance at Slough Borough Council, told the Express: “We’ve always been hovering with general reserves of about £8million.
“I could use all the reserves and pay off these sums but then I’d go into next year with reserves of £1-2 million.
“We’ve gone to MHCLG and said because of these two one-off sums we want to take it (capitalisation discretion).
“It’s not a bail out from the Government, it’s just allowing us to spend our money to pay off this one-off thing.”
No decision has been made on which council-owned assets will be sold off to cover the one-off payments but Mr Wilcox added there will be no ‘firesale’.
Assets under the council’s ownership include the Halfords store, in Bath Road, and the controversial Odeon cinema in Basingstoke.
The council’s director of finance said he expects the council’s tax base to significantly increase over the next 15 years as more houses are built in the area, creating more income for the council.
He said the impact of coronavirus had created a ‘perfect storm’ for the council but insisted the council’s financial future remains bright.
“By going out to MHCLG we’re saying we’re doing this, that takes the pressure off and the reserves stay where they are.
“I believe it’s absolutely the right thing to do and I’m absolutely certain it’s the best thing for Slough. To me it’s a no-brainer, why wouldn’t you do this?”
Leader of the opposition, Conservative councillor Wayne Strutton (Haymill and Lynch Hill), questioned whether the council will attract as many new residents, and taxpayers, as it expects with its approach of building hundreds of flats rather than houses in the borough.
He said: “For me it feels like we’ve got a disaster coming to us because more and more people realise they need that extra space to work from home if they’re able to and there isn’t the space and amenity to do that.”
He also questioned whether the council will sell off the right assets and urged the council to consider alternatives, such as transforming the council-owned cinema in Basingstoke into a data centre.