Concerns expressed over levels of community funding
Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council has been urged to increase financing of community services in a bid to ease tensions in the district
Speaking at a meeting of the council’s Audit Committee on Tuesday evening, Glengormley Sinn Fein Councillor Michael Goodman said that the local authority was “not in as dire a financial position as we thought we would be”.
“Given that we cut back on community planning and economic development, would it not be more sensible to put some money siphoned off into reserves into revigorating services we would make funding from.”
He pointed out that the council has “a significant amount of money in reserves” and questioned where that money has come from.
Sandra Cole, the council’s interim Deputy Chief Executive of Finance and Governance, reported an increase in the authority’s reserves general fund from £5.9m to £6m.
She indicated that it had come from “a number of different avenues” noting that the authority has been able to access the furlough scheme and get funding from Government as well as “significant savings” made within council services during the Covid pandemic.
She also stated that the council had not been able to deliver capital projects with “significant areas” of council spend “not able to deliver”.
In January, councillors were told that the local authority had a nett worth of £92.6m.
However, the officer was unable to provide a response for DUP Councillor Paul Hamill regarding how much money Covid has cost the borough council but she undertook to provide an answer at the next meeting of the Audit Committee.
She also acknowledged that there is “potential for council to be further adversely impacted in the longer term”.
Cllr Goodman underlined the need to “reinvigorate services we make funding from”.
“We are not in as dire a financial position as we thought we would be. Surely we should put funding back into services again.”
The council officer indicated that “not all services have fully recovered yet”.
Cllr Goodman went on to say that the reduction in funding for community planning and community development is something that he is concerned about as well as community cohesion and good relations, which he said, affect the wellbeing of the community.
“There is already significant tensions in very many communities across the borough.
“There is a lack of community development and support for the community. In my view, there is a danger and risk that should be reflected in this recent (Corporate Risk) register.
“If we are not delivering community development, it has potential to significantly contribute to community tension and we should be aware of that and able to respond to that.”
The officer also noted at the meeting that a corporate recovery plan has been developed and will be put in place until the end of the council term with a plan for each of the five towns in the borough.
Former Antrim and Newtownabbey Mayor Councillor Jim Montgomery stressed that the council has not “sat back and waited to see what the aftermath was like” post-Covid but had started “very early working on a post-Covid borough”.
“Compared to a lot of other councils, we are at the forefront of what we are doing,” he suggested.
“A lot of figures are looking healthy which is a good reflection on the council,” he added.
However, he described the rise in the council’s pension liabilities from £46m to £59m in just one year as “concerning” and asked for a report detailing what has caused this increase.
Last year, the council had feared a drop in business rates income of 35 per cent and a loss of £0.5m in domestic rates as a result of the pandemic.
The temporary closure of council facilities combined with reductions in planning and building control activity, resulted in an immediate estimated loss of £750k income monthly during the first lockdown.
A new £5m crematorium for Doagh Road, in Newtownabbey, is the only capital project to have been progressed.
Antrim and Newtownabbey’s “staffing headcount” has reduced by 96 overall through a cost-cutting” staff reduction exercise”.
Of these, 36 were achieved by “not filling non-essential posts”and four through resignations and retirements.
It was estimated that the job losses will result in a saving to the local authority of £2.5m annually at an initial cost of £1.6m.
Furlough arrangements are expected to continue until September 2021.