'Managing council budget properly is key' as Brexit looms

Coun Nick Oliver, cabinet member for corporate services.
Coun Nick Oliver, cabinet member for corporate services.

‘Sound financial management’ is the key thing Northumberland County Council can do to mitigate any risks from Brexit, according to a senior councillor.

The latest briefing about the local-government sector by external auditors EY was reported to last week’s meeting of the council’s audit committee.

The update, which features technical issues relevant to the sector as well as wider matters of potential interest to local authorities, featured a series of key questions for audit committees.

Among these is: ‘Has your authority considered the implications of Brexit? What plans does your authority have in place to mitigate potential risks associated with Brexit?’

Coun Nick Oliver, the cabinet member for corporate services, said: “None of us really knows (what will happen with Brexit). What’s fairly certain is that there will be some kind of decline in economic growth in 2019-20 as many economists were predicting that, regardless of Brexit.

“The key thing we can be doing as a local authority is sound financial management. I’m confident there’s a healthy level of reserves, we have to manage budgets properly and drive through budget cuts.

“At the same time, we have to do what we can to increase our income and make Northumberland an attractive place to come to do business.”

Two of the other key questions in the briefing, as highlighted by chairman Coun Georgina Hill, related to social housing and cybersecurity.

Coun Oliver said: “We are determined to build more social housing and to support community-led schemes. Community-led housing is really interesting and John Riddle (cabinet member for housing) was meeting the Housing Minister recently to ask him to support us on that.”

On cybersecurity, he added: “I don’t know the detail, but I am confident that we are taking that really seriously and there are mechanisms for reporting any breaches.”

Elsewhere in the report was a section on the struggling retail sector, which had caught the eye of Coun Mark Swinburn.

“Our economic strategy has a focus on town centres,” Coun Oliver said, explaining that the administration is mindful of vacancy rates and also wants to encourage town-centre living.

“We are trying to get more young people to move into town centres to live there, spend money and regenerate the night-time economy,” he added.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service