COUNCILLORS were at loggerheads at a public meeting on over Swindon Council’s unspent £18m of funds allocated for community projects.
Last week Freedom of Information requests by the BBC revealed that the council had not used the section 106 cash – provided by housebuilders whenever a large development is carried out for use in that area – while residents continued to struggle under severe cutbacks.
But council leaders have responded to criticism by saying that section 106 money is not ready cash that can be used as and when they choose.
At the East Locality meeting on Thursday issues came to a head after a member of the public asked why the money had not been used to support fledgling community projects in the area.
Coun Mark Dempsey (Lab, Walcot & Park North) and the Parliamentary candidate for North Swindon repeated claims that the unspent cash was a result of the council’s mismanagement of the town’s finances.
But Coun Dale Heenan (Con, Covingham & Dorcan), the cabinet member for strategic planning and sustainability, said that the unused funds were a consequence of the money being ring-fenced for particular projects and as a result of some payments being given in instalments by developers.
He said: “Every single pound received by Swindon Council from housing developers is accounted for, and is being spent in accordance with the legal contracts, the decisions of the cross party planning committee and is allocated to departments like adult social care, education and transport with all details being open and transparent.
“The shadow spokesman for strategic planning, Coun Julian Price deserves a pat on the back for standing up to his deputy group leader at a packed public meeting to say he is wrong.
“If Coun Mark Dempsey is confused about how council finances and planning work there is nothing wrong with asking for help, but he is showing his true colours with his party political soundbites to further his career and confuse residents. Especially when his own colleagues disagree with his wild claims of mismanagement. Residents deserve better.
“I challenge the councillor for Walcot and Park North to restore his credibility and apologise to the hard working council employees who he has wrongly accused of financial mismanagement.”
Nevertheless Coun Dempsey has stood by claims that the Conservative-led council has wasted taxpayers’ money.
“The Swindon Tories have got Swindon Council into a whopping £92m worth of debt,” he said. “That’s a wallet busting £1,045 for every household. The Tories have wasted £45m on the failed housing development at Wichelstowe, and £15m on an unwanted car park. This shows that the Tories cannot be trusted to manage Swindon’s finances. The Tories financial mess will take years to put right.
“I am also concerned about the management of Section 106 money. The Tories failed to deliver £20m of investment earmarked for road improvements in North Swindon. Only 16 per cent was spent in North Swindon, where the money was originally designated for.
“I share the concerns of people across the town, who feel that the management of this money is anything but transparent, and I think Coun Heenan shows just how out of touch he and the Tories are in Swindon.
“It is vital that we get full value for money and build a better future for Swindon. And end the Tory record of debt waste and failure.”
Coun Price, (Lab, Covingham and Dorcan), also took the opportunity to clarify his position.
He said: “Where Mark and I have concerns is where the discretionary money is spent.
“The Conservative group have a reputation for making tenuous links between where the section 106 is spent and the development where it came from.
“For example, using section 106 money for Penhill to build a pedestrian crossing in the town centre because Penhill residents will use it to get into town.”