Concern has been raised that a survey over services heading to 3,000 random East Devon residents could leave district decision-makers looking like a ‘casino council’.
The ‘Careful Choices’ consultation will tell householders that the cash-strapped authority is ‘actively assessing commercial investment opportunities’ and ways it ‘can maximise the way we use our assets’.
Councillor Paul Arnott expressed worry this could made it look like representatives were ‘punting an idea about the council being a development corporation’.
The claim was in turn described as a ‘disservice’, with one cabinet member saying: “This is an important bit of work.”
East Devon District Council (EDDC) is facing a £2.7million funding gap over the next four years and wants to reach out to residents for their views on what services are important to them.
Coly Valley representative Cllr Arnott, leader of the Independent East Devon Alliance, raised concerns about the wording in the survey document.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting last week, he said: “I worry that this will make us look like a casino council.
“We need to be informed and hear what services people want, but this looks like us punting an idea about us being a development corporation.
“I am not sure it is what people voted for or what they want, but, in the survey, we have to be clear it is borrowed money that is being invested and have to detail it.”
EDDC leader Cllr Ben Ingham responded by saying that he would not use the same words to describe what the authority is doing.
Cllr Kevin Blakey, portfolio holder for economy, said: “The parameters mean that big risks are not being taken and there would be an expectation of a yield. This is not a wild punt.”
In March, EDDC agreed to set aside £20million to invest in property to help ensure it can balance its budget.
Any decision on investment of more than £5million would have to be made by the council.
However, delegated authority would be given to the deputy chief executive – in consultation with leader and portfolio holders for asset management, finance and economy – for anything less than that.
Cllr Blakey added that this fund has not yet been used, but the cash is available if an investment opportunity becomes available.
Half of the £20million is set aside purely for commercial reasons to generate maximum revenue for the council. The rest is for schemes which require a judgement of social benefit.
Cllr Ian Thomas, portfolio holder for finance, added: “We need to go out and find out what the most valuable services are.
“We do only have a finite budget, so this is a way of seeking the views of the residents.
“This will give us demonstrative analysis and it will inform our decisions going forward.”
Cllr Geoff Pook, portfolio holder for asset management, said: “This is an important bit of work.
“Everyone wants their area to have free parking, public toilets, and green spaces, but we cannot afford it, so a compromise will have to be made, and this shows that we have to do it.
“Calling us a ‘casino council’ is doing us a disservice as this is a way of getting the information across.”
The survey, which will be sent to a random selection of 3,000 residents, will ask what their priority is for the council to deliver on.
It also asks whether spending on services the council has to provide – and those it has no legal obligation to – should be protected as much as possible or reduced.
Other questions include how big a role the community can play in supporting services and how satisfied householders are with how EDDC has dealt with funding reductions so far.
Cabinet members were asked put the survey out for consultation from November 11 to January 6.
However, they found themselves concerned over the legality of running a consultation during purdah for the upcoming general election, and questioned if it would give the best quality of result.
Cllr Jess Bailey, portfolio holder for corporate services, said that it was her preference for the consultation to start on November 11, subject to officers confirming it would not breach purdah regulations.
She added: “This survey informs us on our decision making so we can understand the services residents value the most, but also raises in people’s mind that we are under financial constraints and that we have to produce a balanced budget.”
However, Cllr Thomas proposed that, in light of the concerns around purdah and the results, the consultation should not start before January 12, 2020.
His recommendation was agreed by five votes to four.