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Oxford to review all capital spending projects under coronavirus recovery plan

The city council has warned of 'difficult decisions' in the coming months.

Oxford City Council is discussing how to mitigate the financial impact, having predicted a shortfall of around £24 million over the next 3 years because of the pandemic.

That's partly through the amount it's spent responding to the crisis, but is mostly due to lost revenue from things like car parks, property rents and leisure centers.

The council warned it might not be able to continue with projects like the replacement of Bullingdon Community Centre and the redevelopment of the East Oxford one - which have been paused during lockdown.

Programmes to tackle climate change will also be revised.

A press release from the council said: 'It is proposed that those projects that are not financially driven, or are required for health and safety reasons, or are externally funded will remain paused until the Council-wide financial position is clearer, at which point a decision on whether or not to proceed in each case can be taken against competing demands for Council resources.' 

It says Government support has been a 'drop in the ocean' - and warned that a return to a pre-COVID 'normal' is not practically possible, nor affordable.

Oxford City Council's Cabinet is meeting on 24 June to discuss the financial impact, where it will review all capital spending projects to 'prioritise what can be taken forward within the available budget.'

The council has received £1.6 million of direct Government COVID-related grant support to date, which it says 'clearly doesn't cover the funding gap.'

It says its ongoing £100 million capital investment programme on low carbon measures will continue, and it 'remains committed to becoming a Zero Carbon Council and city.'

The Cabinet will be considering using reserves to plug the gap, as a 'one-off measure.'

The Bank of England has forecast the worst recession for 300 years with up to 25% contraction of the economy.

Unemployment in Oxford is expected to be sharply higher, with up to 22,000 (19%) of jobs at risk, according to the RSA.

Good Food Oxford has reported that demand for food larders and food parcels are up three-fold across the county since March.

Since the lockdown was introduced, all council staff have been working from home, with many redeployed to deliver the new services created to support vulnerable people.

The authority says it will consider how best to support economic recovery 'such that it is both inclusive and sustainable - to "build back better".'

Moving forward, it believes the below measures are a priority:

  • Supporting the local economy and jobs, and helping to secure long term investment to support sustainable and inclusive growth.
  • Measures to support the reopening of the city and local centres to enable social distancing, with longer term improvements to public realm and transport to support increased cycling and walking.
  • Tackling increasing hardship and homelessness anticipated as a result of the economic impacts; and supporting vulnerable people from COVID and over the longer term.
  • Delivering services differently through embedding new ways of working particularly across our locality areas, while undertaking fundamental reviews of leisure, cultural and community services. Planning for potential further COVID outbreaks.
  • Cost management and resetting business plans for the Council's wholly-owned companies, ODS and OCHL, together with a full review of all planned capital expenditure and other initiatives to prioritise what can be taken forward within the available budget. Updated corporate business plan and budget is planned for the autumn 
  • Continue to support remote and flexible working by staff, and review how we work and where people will be based longer term 
  • Continue to work with our partners in public health, health and social care to promote and protect health and wellbeing of the population.

Councillor Ed Turner, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Finance and Asset Management, said: "Our financial situation is extremely challenging, and it is disappointing in the extreme that central government is so far off helping local authorities in the way it initially said it would: around £1.6 million of extra help is welcome, but is a drop in the ocean compared to £24 million of projected losses.  

"Oxford's situation is made more acute because we have worked hard in the past to generate income, for instance through our excellent wholly-owned company Oxford Direct Services, rather than cutting services.  Sadly some of those sources of income are badly affected by Covid.

"We want to harness some of the things we have learned in this pandemic: such as how communities can rise to the challenge of helping those in need, how there is great potential to increase cycling, and about different ways of delivering council services.  

"We are committed to bringing things back on an even keel, working with our outstanding workforce, represented by its trade unions.  

"We should be able to meet some of the one-off costs because we have a prudent level of reserves, but there are likely to be some difficult decisions in the coming months in order to give us a balanced budget in future years.  

"Many of the impacts of this pandemic will, sadly, be felt for years to come."

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