City community projects face funding squeeze

SHAUN LOWTHORPE A raft of key community and cultural projects that were promised cash and support by civic leaders face a funding squeeze because of a multi-million pound shortfall at Norwich City Council, it has emerged.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

A raft of key community and cultural projects that were promised cash and support by civic leaders face a funding squeeze because of a multi-million pound shortfall at Norwich City Council, it has emerged.

The ruling Labour group, which took control of City Hall at the May local elections, said it was grappling with a potentially crippling black hole in its capital budget which could hit handouts for an array of community ventures and stymie its own political programme.

Labour leaders accused their Liberal Democrat predecessors of pledging more cash than the council could afford.

Last year, the then Lib Dem administration committed itself to a range of schemes including up to £3m for the Theatre Royal refurbishment, £500,000 for new CCTV cameras, and £250,000 for the Open youth venue in Norwich's Bank Plain.

Labour accused the Lib Dems of wasting £8m received from the sale of the Livestock Market.

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Council leader Steve Morphew said the new administration had little room to manoeuvre because there was no money in the coffers. Mr Morphew admitted there were question marks about how the council was going to honour any funding pledges it had inherited.

But former leader Ian Couzens rubbished the claims and accused his successor of stalling on the multi-million pound sale of land for housing at Bowthorpe on the edge of the city - which would cover the costs.

The row comes as government auditors have ordered the council to set aside £400,000 to upgrade its financial monitoring after the council's budget shot nearly £2m into the red in January with councillors in the dark over the matter. The authority must also take out a newspaper advert detailing what actions it is taking to sort out the mess, which was widely seen as contributing to the end of the Lib Dems' four-year reign at City Hall.

Mr Morphew refused to comment on which areas were being looked at, but council papers already show the authority is applying for heritage lottery funds because it does not have enough money for the proposed £2m upgrade of the Memorial Gardens opposite City Hall.

The council is also not pushing ahead with plans to refurbish Rose Lane car park because it was unlikely to be able to borrow the cash to carry out the project.

And he accused the Lib Dems of pursuing "gold plated" schemes in the city centre such as the St Peters Street refurbishment and the closure of St Georges Street at the expense of outlying parts of the city.

"There is a health warning on the capital programme," he said. "There is no money to carry out existing schemes.

"We will put it right because we have to, but it means delays and frustration for the Labour administration and for people in the city."

The council will now have to prioritise which schemes it can fund - with a final spending list not likely to be complete before September.

Adrian Ramsay, Green group convener, said the budget situation was "extremely worrying".

"There isn't going to be money available for a number of projects because the previous administration overcommitted itself," he said. "It shows what a poor job was being done by them in keeping track of the finances."

But Ian Couzens said Labour's claims were "rubbish".

"The capital programme was based on committed receipts. It shows they either don't know what the facts are or they are deliberately misleading people," he said. Mr Couzens added: "Why aren't they proceeding with the sale of the Bowthorpe land put in train by us months ago? Once those sales have gone through then the capital receipts are there."

Last night a Theatre Royal spokesman admitted the authority had yet to state how much money it would hand over.

"At the moment it hasn't had an impact, but we haven't had any bad news," he said.