Wednesday 3 May 2023

Belper Leisure Centre in trouble but needs calm, not sensationalism

 Belper Labour candidates for the Amber Valley Borough and Belper Town Council elections had a meeting last week to consider the problem of funding for the Belper Leisure Centre. We had just been made aware that the Leisure Centre financial advisors were proposing to issue a press statement in the next few days and we had to decide how we would respond to this.

Link to: Belper Leisure Centre Press release 

Pleased to see that in that statement is an acknowledgement that Belper Town Council tried to help by doubling their annual £10k grant to £20k. I know, far short of what is needed but as we set the Belper Town Council budget for 2023/24 we were conscious of the fact that local tax payers already pay the borough for leisure facilities and should not be asked to pay twice.

Obviously the discussion between Belper borough councillors and candidates centred around a rescue plan but we wanted to work towards a long term solution for funding and to make the future secure. We chose not to pre-empt any press release even though we were appalled that the Tory party leadership of Derbyshire County Council and Amber Valley Borough Council had chosen not to make the knowledge of the leisure Centre's financial problems known to the Labour opposition. We did not want the leisure centre and also Belper School to suffer from becoming an election football. What was needed was calm deliberation and a coming together of all interested parties to find a lasting solution and, we agreed to work towards a plan that had sustainable energy at the heart of it. We therefore prepared a "just in case" statement but hoped that with voter's support we could become the ruling group in AVBC and then put together a package ........... no, not a rescue package ........... but help create a sound financial basis to secure the leisure centre's long term future. 

So, this is the response from Chris Emmis-Williams, leader of the AVBC Labour Group:

The parlous financial state of Belper Leisure Centre has not formally been raised at the Council and I was disappointed to hear that applications for funding to the Council have been refused without any public discussion or engagement.

While the Council's finances have been left in tatters by 13 years of Tory austerity, if Labour takes control of Amber Valley Borough Council on May 4th we will immediately call a meeting of all involved parties including Derbyshire County Council and Belper School to explore and follow up on all the options. You will have seen from the official press release that both the Tory controlled  DCC and AVBC councils have walked away from this extremely serious situation which especially affects the children of Belper and their educational needs I will thoroughly investigate how this situation has been allowed to occur, and ensure that everyone is fully informed from now on. A Labour-led Council will also explore what discretionary funding options may be open to the Council in order to avert this crisis. In the longer term, the priority must be to work in partnership with all parties to put the Leisure Centre onto a more secure financial footing so that it can continue to provide key services to the town into the future.  

As a borough councillor for Belper I am very annoyed because in March of this year I attended a briefing in the council chamber that detailed the financial situation of the three leisure centres, Ripley, Alfreton and Heanor. I spoke up about the fourth,  in Belper but was told that there was no plan or even an acknowledgement of our centre. To sit there and have to listen to the complacency of spending over £3.2 million plus £800k to make good the hit of energy price rises was galling when at the same time the Tory led councils of DCC and AVBC were cutting back on financial assistance to Belper Leisure Centre ................... in fact, AVBC halving the grant to £40k. £4 million for Ripley, Alfreton and Heanor but only a hundredth of that for Belper. It should be noted that only Tory and Labour councillors attended that meeting.

Finally the statement from Belper candidates for AVBC:

Belper Leisure Centre is a vital facility for the entire community and essential for a town of this size, as well as providing key services for Belper School. We are disturbed to hear that the Leisure Centre is now working with an insolvency partner due to the 400% increase in energy costs faced by leisure centres worldwide. The Labour-led Belper Town Council has done what it can, but more is needed. It would be unforgivable to see our Leisure Centre close because of inadequate support from this Tory government, or from the Tory-led County and Borough Councils.

If elected to Amber Valley Borough Council, we will pursue every avenue to keep the Leisure Centre open. While the Council's finances are severely constrained following years of disastrous Tory austerity and economic mismanagement, we will ensure that all avenues are explored in terms of how Amber Valley Borough Council can support our Leisure Centre through this crisis. We will work with all others, including Derbyshire County Council and possible other funding sources including sustainable energy, in order to find a solution leading to the long term security of our Leisure Centre.

Monday 1 May 2023

Belper Town Council finances - the facts

If you want to know the truth about how your town or village is run then don't rely on the claims made by those seeking to be elected. A simple but effective truth because the last thing that any political party will do is acknowledge the success of their opponents. Whatever the yardstick, their adversaries will fall short. The opening lines of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice come to mind (please forgive me Austen purists):
St. John's Chapel Belper - Our town hall

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an election candidate in possession of a misguided belief in their own infallibility  must be in want of a financial education.”
I suspect that most of you reading this are aware that I am a candidate in an election, now but 3 days away. So do I have a misguided belief? I hope not because financial myths, distortions, downright falsehoods .............. call them what you will, are the province of those who base their campaigns on attacking those they wish to defeat, Thankfully I am a Labour Party member in Belper and we made the decision to campaign on our record and to deal only in facts. Yes that does seem rather sanctimonious but it is far better to let voters decide on facts and once they know the truth they can make their own judgement. The difficulty is trying to get that truth heard against the clamour of what a Trump spokesperson claimed to be "alternative facts".

So what are the facts about Belper Finances

Labour took control of the council in May 2019 and in the 4 years up to April 2023 have a revenue and expenditure account as follows:

All the above information is available on the Belper Town Council Website. The council tax column demonstrates how much of the councils total income is made up of council tax. In the 4 years between 2019 and 2023 the council tax precept paid for 96% of council expenditure. The pandemic limited the amount of income that Belper Town Council would have expected in normal years.

In conclusion 

It has been a difficult but rewarding 4 years. There were some nasty surprises, especially discovering in 2020 that we had to pay tax for our Coppice car park and that there is an anticipated bill for the car park adjacent to St. John's Church, our town hall. It was no surprise that we contributed £100k to the Swiss Tea Room rebuild but it did make a hole in the earmarked reserves which needed to be built back up for future infrastructure expenditures. We trimmed back our general reserve to 37% in light of the cost of living crisis but with inflation still running high in 2023 that reserve is our only buffer to protect future services if we want to keep our town tax at such a low level.

Yes, I write "low level" because, with over 10,200 households in Belper the average Belper Town Council cost per family was, in 2022/23 £1.10 per week or £57 per year. A lot of that money is spent on services that have experienced government cuts in funding via the County and Borough councils. We try to make good the loss of youth services, public transport, arts and culture groups, the Belper Leisure centre and so much more that makes Belper such a great place to live. There is still so much to be done.