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‘Debt ridden’ South Ribble Conservatives leaflet blunder highlighted

Posted on - 24th April, 2023 - 8:00am | Author - | Posted in - Politics, Preston News, South Ribble News
Mary and Michael Green Pic: BBC Local Democracy Reporting Service

True blue Tories in South Ribble have denied being left red-faced after a national newspaper highlighted an election leaflet in which the party appeared to promise to take the district from being “debt free to debt ridden”.

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The seeming slip-up featured in campaign literature issued on behalf of several Conservative candidates seeking to gain or retain a seat on South Ribble Borough Council when residents go to the polls next month.

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However, a party source has told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that there was no faux pas in the flyer – and that the debt reference was a critique of the ruling Labour group’s time in office over the last four years.

Read more: See the full list of local election candidates for South Ribble Borough Council

But Labour council leader Paul Foster derided what he described as the opposition’s “bungling” and said it merely served to flag up that the claim the Tories were attempting to make was false in any case – because the council is free from debt.

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The LDRS understands that the Conservative leaflet was created by the local party association in South Ribble and based around a series of core borough-wide campaign messages, with space left to promote individual candidates in different ward-level versions of the document.

A panel on the front page of the “In Touch” pamphlet sets out six apparent pledges beneath the heading: “Delivering our plan for…” followed by the name of the ward in which the material is being distributed.

The fifth bullet point has caused eyebrows to be raised Pic: BBC Local Democracy Service

Five of the bullet points clearly refer to plans that the Tories have if they take control of the council after the vote on 4th May, such as creating “a green and cleaner South Ribble”.

However, as The Mirror first reported, the fifth of the six pointers simply states: “From debt free to debt ridden.”

Read more: See the local election 2023 candidates for Preston City Council elections

Veteran councillor Mary Green, who represents the Moss Side ward – and whose joint leaflet with her fellow ward councillor and son, Michael, featured in the paper’s article – told the LDRS that the wording had been taken “completely out of context, without getting a copy of the actual publication to read the full story”.

“The full story is highlighting how the Labour councillors have squandered the legacy that the Conservatives left behind of a debt-free South Ribble Borough Council. Despite receiving almost £50 million of support from the government, they have still created £40 million of debt – according to the council’s own budget documents – and at the same time have been responsible for failing services.

“The full story sets out how the Conservatives would focus on tackling the debt left behind by Labour, to relieve the burden upon the residents of South Ribble,” added Cllr Green, who was first elected to the borough authority in 2007.

An inside page of the pamphlet – of which the LDRS has seen three bespoke versions – does provide further detail on each of the six points, including the Tory claims about the council’s finances. But Cllr Foster mocked what Labour have seized upon as being a glaring front-page gaffe.

Paul Foster Pic: BBC Local Democracy Reporting Service

Cllr Foster said: “There are so many factually incorrect statements within the entire publication, it’s genuinely hard to know what to believe or not. If someone told me the candidates were actually known by another name I’d probably believe them.

“On a more serious note, I think it just genuinely demonstrates the complete lack of attention to any detail. The council is debt free – they know that’s a fact as the Finance Director wrote and told them.

“They are genuinely struggling to offer any coherent policies and I truly believe they actually know that themselves – the residents certainly do.

“It’s bungling at best,” said Cllr Foster, whose Labour group is looking to build upon its achievement of becoming the largest party the last time the borough voted in 2019. It has since run the authority with the support of the Liberal Democrats in a so-called ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, ending 12 years of Tory rule in South Ribble.

The political spat over borrowing flared up when the council set its budget last month – and the row now appears to be turning on a distinction between the current dearth of debt in the district and the need to borrow in future years.

The LDRS has seen an email sent to cabinet member for finance, property and assets Matthew Tomlinson from South Ribble’s director of finance. In the correspondence, dated 5th December last year, the officer states that “it is not expected that the council will have to draw down any borrowing for some time to come, and most definitely not by 31st March 2023”.

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The conclusion was based on “the level of forecast cash inflows and outflows” – from both the capital and revenue streams – and the fact that the authority was holding cash and cash investments totalling £53.9m at the end of September 2022.

Read more: Parish council election candidates for Preston in 2023 local elections

Cllr Tomlinson, who shared the information with all councillors, irrespective of their political colour, told the LDRS that the message confirmed that “our debt position is zero and is expected to be so for a number of years”.

As the LDRS reported at the time, documents presented to the budget meeting of the full council showed that South Ribble Borough Council’s capital investment programme – including such projects as the new extra care scheme in Leyland and upgrades to the district’s leisure centres – will total £91m between 2022/23 and 2025/26.

The lion’s share of that tally – almost £41m – is expected to be funded by government grants, while £5.4m will come from reserves and £4.8m from the sale of council assets.

More than a third of the council’s capital spending commitment – £33.3m – will be covered by what is known as “prudential borrowing” – but the LDRS understands that the authority did not have to borrow the amount budgeted for under that umbrella in 2022/23, because of the strength of its financial position.

However, Cllr Michael Green said following The Mirror’s article about his election leaflet that he found it “sickening that the Labour councillors have amassed a £40 million burden of debt, which the current residents, along with their children and grandchildren, will still be paying off in 40 years’ time”.

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