Google is coming to Epping Forest District.
Councillor John Philip announced a major new investment by the tech giant with significant benefits for local residents and the Council in his update to Overview and Scrutiny Committee on Tuesday (23 January).
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Land at North Weald Airfield
Councillor Philip, Cabinet Finance Portfolio Holder for Epping Forest District Council said:
I am excited to share with you a major development concerning land at North Weald Airfield. I am delighted to confirm that the Council has successfully completed the sale of a significant portion of this land – 52 acres, to be precise – to technology company Google, for a potential data centre.
This marks a major milestone on our district’s journey towards innovation and economic growth, aligning with the Strategic Masterplan’s conclusion that the site is well-suited for this development type due to its location within the UK Innovation Corridor. The potential that this development brings is immense – not only in terms of advancing our digital infrastructure but also in generating high-quality, well-paid employment opportunities and bolstering our local economy.
Extensive consultation with various stakeholders and groups was pivotal to the adoption of the Strategic Masterplan in March last year. While we are eager to share more details, it’s important to note that Google does not have a confirmed timeline for development. We are hugely optimistic about Google’s plans and its role in our vision for a sustainable and prosperous Epping Forest District.
Councillor Philip’s announcement will have a material impact on Epping Forest District Council’s draft budget.
Prudent financial decisions taken over a period of years have ensured Epping Forest District Council continues to provide essential services that local residents value. Councillors are now in the final phase of budget setting for 2024/5.
The Council had already identified and closed a £3.5 million budget shortfall. As well as providing essential front-line services such as waste collection and recycling, homelessness prevention and environmental health, Councillor Philip believes historic decisions including the construction of the Epping Forest Retail Park and creation of Qualis have now played a vital role in helping the Council continue to support much valued additional services such as the Highway Rangers. The Council also remains committed to major investment including the brand new Epping Leisure Centre alongside its other leisure facilities, a council house building programme and major investment in current council housing stock.
Explaining why the land sale to Google could not be included in earlier budget discussions, Councillor Philip said that building a budget on a large, but uncertain event carries considerable financial risks. Sale negotiations had been proceeding for many months, but without certainty of completion until now, the anticipated impact could not be built into budget planning for 2024/5.
Transformation – Fit for the Future
Good news on the long term financial strength of the Council was tempered by the need to make tough decisions for next year including a potential 2.99 percent increase in Council Tax (a small increase of £4.86 per year on an average Band D property). Inflation, interest rates and the economic slowdown have hit councils hard across the UK. The government’s financial settlement meets only a small fraction of costs. One in ten English councils are believed to be facing effective bankruptcy as they struggle to balance budgets for 2024/5.
Councillor Chris Whitbread Leader of Epping Forest District Council emphasised the timeliness of earlier decisions, especially those taken last year to reduce the impact of the economic slowdown. He said:
We are not one of those councils facing a section 114 notice. Of course we are disappointed with the government settlement and the need to raise Council Tax, but we understand the impact of the Pandemic and Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine on public finances. That is why it is so important for councils like Epping Forest District to be able to stand financially on their own.
That also means we can’t stand still. Earlier decisions such as the reduction in office space, remote working for employees, and development of assets such as the Conder Building have protected our most valued front-line services for residents. But we need to keep moving.
Interest on the capital receipt is in the same range as the savings needed to balance the budget for 2024/25. It could be used to put tough decisions off. However, there is inherent and significant risk associated with deviating from proposed savings. Removing the savings proposals from next year’s budget would fail to address the long-term funding gap. Carried forward, it would compounded savings targets for future years, making the choices the Council would face later on more difficult.
It is because we have always looked far ahead, that we are in a strong position now. Google’s investment in North Weald should not deflect us from that principle. Our strategy is clear. We must not be tempted by short-term gains. We will continue to plan with prudence and care for the long-term.
The Council is developing a programme of transformative reviews, collectively titled ‘Fit for the Future’. This involves reducing the Council’s cost of operation through shared working, reviewing assets and generating income, whilst maintaining and improving the services residents value most. Interest from the latest capital receipts can help to achieve a ‘softer landing’ as the Council evolves over the next 2 years.
Councillor Philip added:
The budget process is not yet over. We will now be taking the feedback from Overview and Scrutiny members, alongside further analysis of the latest capital receipts before something approaching the final draft comes to Cabinet on 5 February. From there, the final budget will be set at Full Council on 20 February.
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