Row grows over Waveney council budget black hole

A potential �13.2m budget crisis at Waveney District Council has sparked angry exchanges between councillors, as it emerged strict controls on spending would continue.

A potential �13.2m budget crisis at Waveney District Council has sparked angry exchanges between councillors, as it emerged strict controls on spending would continue.

Members of the ruling Tory group traded verbal blows with their Labour counterparts as the authority faced up to a financial predicament, threatening frontline services and major projects.

Any council expenditure above �1,000 will now have to be personally authorised by director of resources Alan McFarlane until further noticed.

Spending on the �52.7m Waveney Campus project has also been suspended and a new team will be set up to identify where savings can be made.

The council was rocked when the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) claimed it had overpaid benefits to the tune of �8.9m during 2004-07 and demanded the cash back. A further �900,000 claim could be forthcoming, while the council will have to find up to �3.4m for urgent repairs to Southwold harbour.

Council bosses insist benefits cash, which they distribute on behalf of the DWP, was paid out correctly, but cannot yet be accounted for because of mistakes made when transferring data from paper to computer during 2005/06.

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Waveney is confident it will be able to produce evidence to back its case by a May 31 deadline, but opposition Labour councillors rounded on their Conservative opponents during a heated meeting at Lowestoft Town Hall on Thursday.

John Shanahan said: 'As the consequence of the mismanagement of a project earlier this decade, we find ourselves in the position of a �10m claw-back. This is a matter of governance and mismanagement. It is clear there will be an impact on frontline services…'

Fellow Labour councillor Terry Kelly added: 'This administration has been in power for six years. Can I ask when are they going to resolve these things?'

Senior Conservative councillors hit back, insisting problems with the benefits department had also dogged the previous Labour administration, voted out of power in 2003.

Council leader Mark Bee said: 'We have taken difficult decisions and we will not shrink from this task. It is disappointing that we have had nothing but carping from the Labour group tonight.'

Mr Bee said the previous Labour-run council had been strongly criticised for taking 16 weeks to deal with benefits' claims, but the current department, under new management, had been praised for bringing this down to 15 days.

Referring to problems with the installation of new computer software and the transfer of data, Mr Bee added: 'Both of these procedures were badly managed and there was a catalogue of errors made by staff and consultants alike. The consultants and senior staff involved are no longer on the payroll of the council.'

Mr Bee insisted the Waveney Campus council and science building, planned for the banks of Lake Lothing in Lowestoft, was a vital project even though methods of funding it would have to be reviewed.

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