MEMBERS from across the political divide held a war of words after Cheshire West and Chester Council’s financial strains were laid bare.

In her first review of performance as cabinet member for legal and finance at Wednesday’s cabinet meeting, Labour Cllr Carol Gahan reported an extra £9 million expense above the budget set in February which would need to be met.

CWAC has found measures to meet £6 million of that so far this year, while an expected underspend of £900,000 means the council will need to find another £2.1 million to balance the books.

Conservative opponents slammed the results – but CWAC’s Labour cabinet insisted the authority is working as hard as it can to balance the books and support residents after a decade of austerity.

Cllr Neil Sullivan, Conservative shadow cabinet member for legal and finance, said: “I feel sorry for Cllr Gahan, but it’s the first set of numbers that you have had to present and it’s a disaster, isn’t it?

“The budget was set in February and here we are a few months into it forecasting a £9 million overspend.

“Did we get the budgeting wrong, or has the world changed in a few months?”

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Cllr Sullivan highlighted that the council’s overall budget had risen from £277 million in 2015-16 to £309 million today, despite ‘hard work from officers’ in delivering savings.

The CWAC member for Handbridge Park noted that the adult social care budget had risen from £84 million to £108 million in that time – which he labelled an ‘eyewatering increase’ – while the children’s services budget rose from £38 million to £52 million.

He pointed out that around a quarter of savings were not delivered in last year’s budget, and suggested the ongoing overspend on Chester’s park and ride bus is ‘money that we could do with in other service areas’.

And while praising the council’s investment of Winsford Cross – which is expected to make a £600,000 profit in 2019-20 – Cllr Sullivan raised concern at the forecasted £1.5 million loss for Barons Quay, and questioned whether CWAC should pump £8 million into the new public sector hub at Ellesmere Port.

He added: “Is that the right decision at this time of pressure? I think that’s a decision for council in due course.”

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But following Cllr Sullivan’s criticism, cabinet members were united in slamming cuts to local government funding under his party’s Government.

Cllr Val Armstrong, cabinet member for adult social care and public health, hit out at the ‘national scandal’ of adult social care funding.

She pointed out that CWAC is faced with a 25 per cent increase in the number of people trying to access its services, but the Government has only planned ahead for next year.

Cllr Karen Shore, cabinet member for environment, highways and strategic transport, suggested that the council is mitigating ‘the very worst impacts’ of austerity.

The Ellesmere Port councillor also claimed the planned hub in her hometown is part of a ‘long overdue’ regeneration scheme, while she defended park and ride as a ‘key plank’ of the council’s work on sustainability.

Responding directly to Cllr Sullivan’s comments, Cllr Gahan said ‘60p in every pound’ that comes to local government has been taken away by central Government in the past decade – and last week’s spending review only puts 7p back into that.

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She added: “Don’t have sympathies for me in reporting the numbers we are reporting here today – that sympathy is misplaced.

“The disaster that we are looking at is the disaster that’s come from an inaction at central Government, and that is our problem, we are firefighting on all fronts.”

Cabinet agreed that £800,000 should be used from reserves to meet the escalating costs of the delayed Best for Business IT programme, which is being produced for CWAC and Cheshire East Council.

It will also recommend that £2.4 million is used to plug a funding gap for looked after children and £2.5 million goes towards social care at next month’s full council meeting.

Meanwhile, cabinet members have agreed to get the ball rolling on budget setting for 2020-24, with CWAC needing to plug an estimated gap of £26.8 million by 2024.

Consultation will begin next month, and the financial strategy will be published in February 2020 for approval by full council.