Coronavirus: South Cambridgeshire Council leader ‘shocked’ by Fenland councillor’s ‘lie’ over finances and for ‘playing political games’

South Cambs Council leader Bridget Smith has accused a Fenland councillor of a lie over her council'

South Cambs Council leader Bridget Smith has accused a Fenland councillor of a lie over her council's finances. - Credit: Archant

South Cambs Council leader Bridget Smith says she was stunned by accusations from a Fenland councillor that she had somehow “near bankrupted” the council.

Cllr Sam Hoy who has infuriated the leader of South Cambs Council Bridget Smith

Cllr Sam Hoy who has infuriated the leader of South Cambs Council Bridget Smith - Credit: Archant

“To play politics at a time when we are concentrating on saving the lives of our most vulnerable residents is beyond belief,” she said.

Cllr Smith was responding to a tweet by county councillor Samanatha Hoy questioning investments by South Cambs Council.

“Is it true that Bridget Smith invested £30m of cash instead of borrowing it and now has near bankrupted the council?” wrote Cllr Hoy, also portfolio holder for housing at Fenland Council.

Cllr Hoy alleged that South Cambs “can’t even pay the parish councils #incompetent #libdems #bridgetsmith #wheresthemoney”.

Cllr Smith said: “My reaction to this tweet? I’m not surprised but it’s a lie.

“I don’t reply to tweets like that; some people have nothing better to do”.

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But she was “shocked by it nonetheless – the focus of all councillors should be on Covid-19 at this time.

“If some are still playing political games they ought not to be. As for the £30m I have no idea where that idea has come from.”

Cllr Smith explained that “like all financially prudent councils” money not immediately required is invested to secure the best returns”.

She said: “That enables us to spend more on key frontline services.

“Covid-19 has seen a significant drop in our income and we are therefore managing expenditure and cash flow even more carefully than usual.”

Cllr Smith said: “ While we are required by law to pay the precept over to first tier authorities (county, fire and police) immediately, regardless of whether we receive the income from council taxpayers or not, we have more flexibility in how we pay the precept to parishes.

“Usually we pay them six months up front. For obvious reasons we have proposed paying them two quarterly instalments instead, thus managing our cash between April and June when there is so much uncertainty in terms of income.”

Cllr Smith added: “We made it very clear in our correspondence to parishes that any parish which needed the six months in advance could request it and we’ll pay it as usual. Two have done so to date.

On finance she said the council was looking to invest over £300m.

“If we don’t make those investments, then we will have to start cutting services as they provide revenue. The majority of councils do so these days since unless they find imaginative ways of getting revenue, they will be making cuts,” she said.

South Cambs had bought an office block on the science park and the Lib Dem run council inherited Ermine Street housing when it took over the from the Conservatives. It was a private housing company delivering around £2m a year and the council continues to invest in it. Around £90m will eventually be invested but like all councils, investments had slowed during the current pandemic.

Councils had the option to borrow to invest or use their reserves and South Cambs, she said, tried to use its reserves where they could to obtain a better return.

She also dismissed as “outrageous” suggestions the council had held onto Government money intended for businesses to ease cash flow.

South Cambs had £20m of “accessible cash and it would be absolutely outrageous if we held onto that money to ease cash flow.

“It would also be illegal, and we know businesses are going bust every day and we are determined to get this money out as quickly as we could “

South Cambs Council had received £25m from the Government and their aim was to get it out as fast as possible to businesses.

As of Wednesday, the council had paid out to 422 companies – higher than many councils – and £7.9m had been sent out so far.

The council was delayed by a few days because of software issues but these were rapidly sorted.

South Cambs had 1,700 companies eligible for grants and the council was also recruiting four officers to fast track grants and to provide business recovery advice.