A DEBT-RIDDEN council may need further government support and increase council tax past the cap as its financial position “remains extremely serious”.

The commissioners, who were brought in to oversee Slough Borough Council’s (SBC) recovery, have released their first report on the local authority.

The government sent in help in December after the council declared bankruptcy in July 2021 after a top team of financial officers uncovered a £760m borrowing debt and the authority is facing a £479m blackhole.

This was caused by historic accounting errors and the council borrowing excessively to purchase land and properties.

Slough Observer: (Left) Maragaret Lee, finance commissioner, and lead commissioner Max Caller (Left) Maragaret Lee, finance commissioner, and lead commissioner Max Caller

“Some of this was down to a lack of competence by a range of officers and some by more deliberate action,” the commissioner’s report stated, which was published today (July 28)

The commissioners say they are “not certain” SBC will be able to recover without continued “unprecedented” support by government and may need to extend their intervention from the initial three years.

To reduce its debt, the council is needing to make £20m savings every year until 2029 and sell up to £600m-worth of its assets over the next three years. According to the report, SBC’s debt has now reduced to £680m.

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But the commissioners say they are “not confident” they will sell the land and properties in time. They also say making £20m savings a year is “not realistic” and think SBC should save £10m a year instead.

They also say Slough will need financial support for at least six to eight years, but they warned current forecasts show SBC will require council tax increases past the 1.99 per cent cap over the next three years.

The report states: “Depending on the assumptions made about levels of support and external circumstances, this [council tax increase] will be in the range of 12 per cent to 20 per cent.”

Since SBC declared bankruptcy, the commissioners say “nothing has happened” other than a financial recovery plan since they arrived in December.

They wrote: “The whole organisation was in stasis and appeared to be just waiting for commissioners to arrive and set out how to recover whilst trying to carry on some semblance of business as usual. This has resulted in significant time being lost and a lack of direction.”

READ MORE: Slough Council to sell major housing sites

SBC is needing to restructure its departments following the council-wide changes caused by the ‘Our Futures’ programme, of which £2.8m was spent on “inexperienced” consultants, which resulted in vacancies and a lack of capacity.

As a result of this, chief executive Josie Wragg, who oversaw this restructure, was sacked by the commissioners for “reckless behaviour” and “gross misconduct”.

The commissioners have requested further powers to recruit to the top three tiers of the council without following the usual council procedures in an attempt to get the right people in place, quickly, so the council can continue to recover.

The Levelling Up Secretary Paul Scully concluded Slough is "still failing" and is not implementing the requirements set out by the government. 

Slough Observer: Cllr James SwindlehurstCllr James Swindlehurst

Council leader James Swindlehurst (Lab: Cippenham Green) said SBC’s financial position “remains extremely serious”.

He said: “The mistakes which brought us to this position are laid out clearly, but what is also clearer as we move forward is what we need to do to help put things right.”

“We have always accepted the seriousness of our situation and the difficult decisions we have to make in the coming years.

“If the processes and arrangements to recruit a strong officer team can be streamlined or simplified, so we can more forward and restore staff capabilities more swiftly until the council is further stabilised, then we accept this will also assist the council’s recovery.”