Council budget forces pressure on campus project
Hayley MaceA cash-strapped council which is facing a potential �9m black hole in its budget could be forced to find another �1m to cover its part in a multi-million building development if the project folds.Hayley Mace
A cash-strapped council which is facing a potential �9m black hole in its budget could be forced to find another �1m to cover its part in a multi-million building development if the project folds.
The �52m Waveney Campus project, which would provide a science and council hub for hundreds of workers in Lowestoft, is facing an increasingly uncertain future after Waveney District Council was told this week that its long-running row with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) could end in an �8.9m bill for overpaid benefit subsidies.
The campus is due to be built to house staff from Waveney District and Suffolk County Councils and the Centre for the Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) laboratories, with Waveney working as project leaders.
At a meeting on Thursday night, council leader Mark Bee announced that the council will be asking the Department for the Environment, Fisheries and Rural Affairs (Defra), which is responsible for Cefas, to take over the lead for the project because Waveney's ongoing row with the DWP means that the council is unable to set a balanced budget for the coming year.
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However there is no assurance that Defra will take on the scheme, and Waveney's chief financial officer Alan McFarlane told councillors that if the project falls through, the council will face a further �1.3m bill to cover liabilities for contracts and work already carried out.
The DWP told the council this week that officers have until January 8 to provide evidence to show that they did not overpay �8.9m in subsidies between 2004 and 2007, but that date will be too late for the council to set a balanced budget for 2010/11.
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It had been hoped that the department would reduce the amount it is clawing back, and let the council arrange any necessary payments to be paid in reasonable chunks over the next few years.
Mr Bee said: 'The delay of any decision until the new year is a fresh hammer blow. It not only compromises the council's ability to set a balanced budget, but also threatens the viability of important projects, particularly the Waveney Campus.'
Waveney Labour group leader John Shanahan said: 'Everything is now at risk. It looks like we are going to be in the very embarrassing position where w can't go forward with the campus, on which huge amounts of money have already been spent.
'At the end of the day, I don't think Waveney has actually overpaid anybody, but poor administration means that they don't have the records to prove that.'
A Defra spokesman said: 'We have received Waveney District Council's letter and we are considering the issues. We will respond in due course.'
Mr Bee and council chief executive Stephen Baker are hoping to meet with representatives from the DWP, Defra and the Department of Communities and Local Government as soon as possible to try to resolve the issue of the overpayments before the January 8 deadline.