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Chorley’s ‘ambitious and bold’ investment plan to recover from Covid damage

Written by on February 25, 2021

Chorley Council will have to find more than £4m – either in savings or new sources of income – over the next three years after setting what its deputy leader described as the “most challenging budget” that he had been forced to propose in nearly a decade of delivering them.

Peter Wilson told a meeting of the full council that he “desperately hoped” that the worst of the pandemic was over – and that there were “good times ahead” for Chorley.

However, the £4.1m deficit faced by the authority has its roots less in Covid-related costs – for which the government has provided the authority with cash support  – and more in uncertainty over the government’s much-delayed “fair funding review” into how councils are financed in the long term.

That will include changes to the level of business rates that can be retained by the authority – and the council has factored in an assumed drop of £1.1m by 2023/24.   It will also take a £1m hit from the phasing out of government payments connected to the number of new homes built in the borough.

Against that backdrop, Cllr Wilson said that now was the time for the authority to be “even more ambitious and bold”, revealing that the Labour-run council will still invest more than £30m in the coming year.

The vast majority of that total will be spent on one-off capital projects, such as the redevelopment of Tatton Recreation Ground to create a new assisted-living and community facility, but will also include revenue investment – including a £100,000 pot to defend locally-made planning decisions against appeals from developers.   A £200,000 fund will also be maintained to provide grants for businesses to expand or relocate within the borough.

“I think this [budget] gives us a blend of planning for the future and managing risk – but it also doesn’t deter from [our] exciting…plans to make Chorley a much better place to work, live and visit,” Cllr Wilson added.

The pandemic brought something close to cross-party consensus over the budget, with Conservative opposition group leader John Walker declaring that the party would not be voting against the plans – as is customary – in recognition that “our residents would want us to work together and do our best to help everyone through these uncharted waters”.

“With the excellent team of officers, the Labour group have produced a very prudent budget. However, this has been achieved with funding from central government to support our council, communities and businesses,” said Cllr Walker, whose group abstained in the budget vote.

Former Tory group leader Martin Boardman did question the decision to increase council tax by 1.99 percent – which will take Chorley’s share of the bill for a Band D property to £195.76 from April.   He appealed for the authority to “give the people of Chorley a financial break for this year”.

However, the meeting heard that the effect of a freeze would be “cumulative” and would also have an impact on calculations made as part of the fair funding review when it takes place.

Cllr Wilson said that the increase had been a “difficult” decision, but necessary.   Chorley is one of the few Lancashire districts whose Band D bills remain under £200 per year.   The majority of the £1,929 charge to be levied on such properties in the borough in the coming year goes to Lancashire County Council, with additional contributions to the police and fire services and parish councils.

Council leader Alistair Bradley said that, notwithstanding the government’s financial support during the pandemic, he questioned the degree to which Chorley would benefit from any wider “levelling up” finding that might be announced by the chancellor in the budget next week.

He added:  “We’ve invested in the past to enable our communities to be more resilient and deal more effectively with what life chucks at them.

“When times are tough, that’s when that investment comes home to roost.”

The authority has plugged the gap in the budget for the coming financial year via a combination of the council tax rise, rental income from the Market Walk shopping centre extension and the TVS distribution warehouse which it purchased two years ago and also savings generated by an expanded agreement to share services with neighbouring South Ribble Borough Council.

However, that still leaves £2.8m to find by 2023/24.   Amongst the options under consideration in the budget papers are increases to parking charges from 2022/23 – although these would only be implemented “if they are deemed necessary…and only if changes to parking tariffs would not be detrimental to the town centre”.

Income is also expected to be generated from the council’s investment sites – including the Tatton Gardens development and a new Whittle health hub.

The town’s Market Walk extension is currently generating £100,000 for the council, with five out of the seven units now occupied.   It is expected that income will increase to £150,000 over the medium term, but that will still be short of the £200,000 per year forecast before the pandemic struck.

Meanwhile, the council’s Strawberry Fields digital office park is currently at 40 percent of its capacity, but is expected to break even from next year and bring in £149,000 from 2023/24.

The council has generated £4m in additional income and efficiency savings since 2014/15 and has earmarked a further £1.2m in the four years to 2023/24.

The authority’s external funding will have fallen from £17m to £11.5m over the period 2016/17 to 2023/24.

Where is Chorley Council investing its money?

The cash committed for 2021/22 includes:

Capital projects

  • Tatton Gardens – £15m to redevelop former recreation ground, including extra care scheme, health facilities, nursery and open spaces.
  • Alker Lane redevelopment – £9.2m to create an estate of light industrial units.
  • Whittle Health Hub – £4m to develop a modern health facility to replace Whittle Surgery.
  • Housing – £1.5m to deliver council-owned affordable housing.
  • Green agenda – £500,000 allocated to an environmental programme.

Revenue projects 

  • Demolition of bingo hall – £500,000 for asbestos removal and work to prepare for public realm improvements in the town centre.
  • Support for the third sector – £400,000 to commission organisations to deliver help to residents.
  • Improved services from Chorley bus station – £100,000 investment.
  • Supporting vulnerable residents – £60,000 for social prescribing in the borough, whereby individuals are referred to community groups that may be able to help them with a range of  issues.