Google purchase of part of North Weald Airfield will not solve all problems says leading councillor

Politics / Mon 12th Feb 2024 at 07:46am

A PORTFOLIO holder for an Epping council has said that a recent sale of land to tech giant Google will make “significant contributions” to the authority’s financial reserves, but will not fix any “structural issues” found within the budget proposed for the next year reports the Local Democracy Reporter.

At a cabinet meeting split over two sessions on February 5 and 6, Epping Forest District Councillor John Philip (Con., Theydon Bois), who is also the administration’s portfolio holder for finance and economic development, presented his fellow cabinet members with budget proposals for 2024-25 in line with the sale of a portion of land at North Weald Airfield, a former RAF base.

In his report, Cllr Philip said: “The size of the capital receipt, and the investment interest that it generates, has material financial implications for the council.

“However… There is a substantial underlying structural deficit in the council’s general fund revenue budget, which cannot be addressed through the application of the North Weald Airfield capital receipt.”

He said that, although the 52 acres of land sold to Google for employment use in the form of a potential data centre “made a significant contribution to (the council’s) capital position”, other pressures on the authority’s finances are and will continue to be sources of stress on the budget.

In March 2023, Epping Forest District Council recorded its financial reserves as falling below the recommended amount of £4 million, with overspends accounting for more than a £1 million reduction in those reserves during the first two quarters.

This can be attributed in part to “significant shortfalls” in the planning and development sector which had over £1 million in overspends, and a £325, 000 overspend within customer services relating to housing benefit underpayments.

Cllr Philip reiterated that the income from the sale of the land at North Weald Airfield “does not affect the strategic and tactical changes that the council needs to make, because we have a deficit operating in our budget which we cannot keep covering through use of our reserves and the interest on them”.

He said that, despite it being necessary to reduce funding handed to charity groups such as Voluntary Action Epping Forest, which is a Council for Voluntary Services (CVS), he remained optimistic that internal redundancy could either be kept to a minimum or avoided entirely.

In addition, he said that the district council would be able to retain the police force based in the civic offices for at least another year, a statement which attracted support from fellow cabinet members.

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