Exeter “on track” for economic recovery

Desire to help families hardest hit

The leader of Exeter City Council says the authority is “on track” to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and is not planning another emergency budget.

Last year such a budget to tackle a deficit of £11.1 million was approved, after the council incurred £2.6 million in costs and lost £8.5 million in revenue as a result of the pandemic.

In February councillors approved the ruling Labour group’s budget for 2021/22, meaning the city’s element of council tax rose by an average £5 per home per year. It revealed £6 million would be required over the next three years to balance the books; equivalent to 13 per cent of the total spent on services in the city during that period.

Speaking before Boris Johnson confirmed most covid rules would end in England on 19 July, Councillor Phil Bialyk (Labour, Exwick) said if the authority had to prepare another emergency budget they would do so, but “at the moment we’re on track and can get ourselves through”.

“I’ve had fantastic support from the officers at the council and, more importantly, the community at large. What I’ve noticed is everyone in Exeter has really pulled together to get us to this position of all but near to the finishing line.”

Cllr Bialyk added: “Our next job here in Exeter is to make sure that we can recover safe and sound to make sure there are jobs coming forward in the future and that the hardest hit families in the city are helped.”

Councillor Diana Moore (Green, St David’s and co-leader of the Progressive group) says the city needed to be “very cautious” about how it emerges from the pandemic.

“The council has to really focus on making sure that it meets the needs of all of those in our community. This pandemic has really highlighted the inequalities in Exeter and we need to really recognise that effects people in many different ways, including the people who are very nervous of moving away from the situations we’ve been in to protect one-another. We need to be very careful about that and make sure that council services really continue to support people.

Cllr Bialyk, who became leader in 2019 following the retirement of Pete Edwards after 10 years in the job, points to the new leisure complex at the former bus station site as one reason for residents to be optimistic about the post-covid future for the city and wider area.

“Isn’t it great? Isn’t it fantastic? Doesn’t it look like a building of the future? It’s exactly the anchor we need here, where our high streets are changing, where people will be looking for something new other than just retail here in the city. It’s going to be the only Passivhaus leisure centre in the country [an energy-efficient standard] which is climate ready, reducing gases and making sure all the bills are reduced by 80 to 85 per cent.

“It’s not just about going for a swim anymore, it will be a destination which I think people will go to.”

But Councillor Moore expressed concern about the council’s spending: “There’s been a lot of expenditure on capital projects, some of which have gone over budget.”

“Labour are also looking to implement £6 million of cuts in the next few years, so over that time we need to make sure that we don’t eek any further into core services that people rely on.”

When asked about the new leisure centre potentially impacting other services, Cllr Bialyk said: “At the moment it won’t impact on other services. There are separate business cases for all of these things. I really believe this and when people see it for themselves, when they go in there, I think those critics in the past will be quiet and those people who have always wanted it will be quite pleased with what they see. It really will be a leisure centre for the future.

“And when you look at some of the other leisure plans that we’ve got in line for Exeter over the coming years in accordance with our activity policies, I think we’re doing the right thing.”

We asked the leader of the opposition at Exeter City Council, Andrew Leadbetter (Con, Topsham) but he was unable to respond to requests for an interview before publication.

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