“We don’t have answers on a shelf”: Top officials quizzed on £55m crisis bill

Renfrewshire Council’s top official admitted bosses “do not have answers to take off a shelf” when quizzed about facing a £55million coronavirus crisis bill.

Chief executive Sandra Black and director of finance and resources, Alan Russell, were both grilled by elected members on how the council was going to survive such a huge financial hit during a recent emergencies board meeting.

It emerged last week the projected cost of the Covid-19 outbreak had more than doubled in just over a month for the local authority, leading to fears some vital services could collapse unless governments could offer a further bail-out.

As it stands, the local authority is only expected to receive around £9.5m in funding.

Elected members have been told large parts of the 2020/21 budget agreed in March will need to be overhauled, with a revised financial strategy being prepared ahead of a September full council meeting.

Labour councillor Jim Harte demanded answers on whether that strategy would consider the worst case scenario, what services could be lost and asked what contingency plan was in place.

But Ms Black responded by saying the council’s unallocated reserves – which amount to just £6.5million – were its financial contingency and much of her team’s work going forward would depend on the response of the UK and Scottish Governments.

Councillor Harte told officers: “It’s okay saying we’re looking at this and we’re looking at that and we don’t know what the budget is going to look like at the moment and, I understand that, but we have to have a contingency plan, and what is that contingency plan and will that be part of the revised financial strategy? And if not, why not?

“We owe it to the staff and to the people of Renfrewshire to be upfront about these things. We need people to know we’re not hiding anything from them.”

Ms Black said in response: “These are all matters which are not resolved yet and that’s the purpose of the work the corporate management team are going to be doing in order to bring forward a report to the September council meeting and much depends on the response of the UK and Scottish Governments.

“The unallocated reserves to date have been its [the council’s] financial contingency and we said when we closed the accounts at the end of last year those reserves would be fully allocated to the Covid response, but those are only £6.5million.

“I think members need to understand the absolute scale of this. It’s like nothing a council would normally plan for financially or otherwise. We are in a very unique situation and it’s not something we have answers just to take off a shelf for, and therefore we will bring back as much information about the council’s position over the summer period.”

The predicted cost is based on bringing in a blended learning model for children on their return to school in August, a plan which has, for now, been thrown out by the Scottish Government in favour of welcoming pupils back full time.

The part-time model is forecast to cost £12m but, while a move away from the plan will provide some relief, the council says it will still face additional costs in supporting schools with new operational arrangements.

Board papers say councils, the Scottish Government and the Convention for Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) are “actively pursuing” the UK Government to make more cash resources available, or at least offer greater financial flexibility to help spread the cost of the impact over a number of years.

Daily Record – Paisley