'Good and bad' bits of Bay's 'curate egg' budget plan

Joseph Bulmer

Torbay Council's new budget plan is a 'curate’s egg', it has been claimed.

Conservative opposition leader Dave Thomas praised certain elements of the plans, but raised concerns about new proposals for borrowing an extra £6 million.
On Tuesday February 22 the council’s cabinet put forward its final draft of the budget, including several new areas of spending.
Speaking at the cabinet meeting, Cllr Thomas supported new measures that would see the introduction of free toilet passes, funds to help address empty homes and a plans to finally livestream meetings.
He criticised new proposals that would see £6 million extra in borrowing invested in car parks, a climate change investment fund and a capital contingency fund.
Cllr Thomas said: “It’s definitely a case of the curate’s egg. There’s some good and some partly bad.”
The new loo pass, which will cost the council £75,000, will allow vulnerable residents to use public toilets for free. A public toilet pass will also be included in the hire agreements of beach hut users. The passes will have a fair usage policy, although it’s not clear what that will look like.
Cllr Thomas said he was 'pleased' to see the introduction of the toilet pass, adding: “It’s such a shame that this couldn’t be rolled out last summer…I guess if we wait long enough and push hard enough eventually you do listen.”
A total of £210,000 will be spent bringing empty properties back into use, and improving the standards of private sector housing. The Conservative leader supported the plans, saying: “I thank the administration again for listening to us on that one.”
Unlike many other councils in Devon, Torbay does not currently live-stream its meetings. It now aims to invest £90,000 in technology to allow streaming of full council, cabinet and planning meetings.

The council did broadcast meetings online during the early phases of the pandemic, but since the government reintroduced a legal requirement for councils to meet in person it ended this service.
Cllr Thomas backed the councils plans.

His main misgivings about the final budget proposals  were concerned with £6 million in borrowing.
Building costs have soared over the past year, exacerbated by the pandemic and Brexit.  In response, the council has set up a new £4 million ‘capital contingency fund’ to cover council projects, including regeneration schemes, that may overspend as a result. Without the fund it is feared some projects will simply run out of cash.
This fund will be paid for by a £4 million loan, repayable over 30 years, with conditions of borrowing to be agreed by the council’s chief finance officer.
The council will also borrow £1 million for investment in car parks. The initial stages of the programme will include resurfacing and improved signage and lighting. The plans will be funded by a £1 million loan, to be paid back over 10 years.
A similar £1 million loan, to be paid off over the same time frame, will be taken out to ramp up efforts to tackle climate change. The money will be used as a ‘climate investment fund’ to pay towards initiatives geared at reaching the council’s target of being carbon neutral by 2030.
With the council currently only having one climate change officer, some of the money will go towards hiring extra staff.
If the plans go ahead the council will pay more than £400,000 in interest over 10 years for the new initiatives.
Cllr Thomas claimed that cabinet had not carried out adequate consultation on its new measures and that the administration was at fault for needing a contingency fund to fill “black holes” in capital projects.
“That is prudential borrowing but not prudential thinking,” he said.
Council leader Steve Darling said that Cllr Thomas was 'engaging in fantasy politics and argued that the opposition had been allowed to engage with cabinet far more than under previous administrations when the Conservatives were in control.
Councillors will meet on Thursday March 3 to vote on the final budget.