Barbican Centre’s £451m bill ‘elephant in the room’ as City sets budget

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Local Democracy Reporting Service
Credit Local Democracy Reporting Service

A senior City of London politician described the Barbican Centre’s £451 million ‘essential works’ bill as the ‘elephant in the room’ as the authority set its budget for 2024/25.

Increases to council tax and social rents were agreed by members at the Court of Common Council meeting earlier today, amid pressures including inflation, reductions in property income and rising demands for adult and children’s services.

As revealed by the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), the Corporation, which is the principal funder of the Barbican Centre, estimates the ‘essential works’ planned as part of the site’s renewal project will cost £451m. A spokesperson for the City previously said the figure “is an early estimate from a consultant, based on delivering a programme of essential works, including repairing and replacing ageing building infrastructure, and meeting accessibility and net-zero requirements”.

£25m has already been committed over 2023/4 and 2024/25 “to support critical health and safety needs of the Barbican Centre”, which a Corporation report described as having reached “the end of its economic life”. The full cost of essential works however is not currently budgeted for.

Speaking at the meeting earlier today (March 7), Chair of the Finance Committee Deputy Henry Colthurst said the budget before members “does not address the long-term future of what is now the elephant in the room; the Barbican Centre.”

He added the Corporation must “take a fundamental look at how we can make it fit for purpose, strategically, socially, and financially”.

‘Very significant challenges’

A report compiled ahead of the Finance Committee meeting last month, at which the budget proposals were discussed, had warned the Corporation is facing major pressures if it is to continue putting forward settled budgets into the future, due to issues from inflation to its ageing building stock.

Among the recommendations to help balance the budget were increases to council tax and the Adult Social Care precept by a combined 4.99 per cent, and business rate premiums of up to £0.04 in the pound. If implemented, the council tax rise would mean residents living in a Band D property would be liable to pay £1,051.62 a year, excluding the Greater London Authority (GLA) precept. A 7.7 per cent hike to the rent paid by social tenants was also posed, which goes towards the separate Housing Revenue Account (HRA) budget.

Deputy Colthurst spoke to the Court of Common Council of the risks posed to the two Corporation funds, the City Fund and City Estates, the former of which is used for local authority purposes. “I hope at last we have realised the very significant challenges which we face, and accept the settlement for 2025/26 is going to involve some difficult decisions,” he said.

He added members should avoid short-termism and begin looking to plan for “at least the next 20 years, if we are to respond properly to the needs of residents and businesses alike”.

The proposed increase to rents for social tenants had been raised during the February Finance Committee meeting. Given the Corporation was recommending putting £400,000 aside for ‘possible increases to members allowance’, Deputy Elizabeth King suggested members think ‘very, very carefully’ before approving. “The optics of that, if nothing else, are dreadful,” she said.

At today’s meeting, Cllr Munsur Ali asked whether the proposed increase to social rents had taken account of the income earned by those to be affected, and what support is available. Deputy Colthurst responded saying the HRA is ‘very restricted’ in how it can increase its income, and that it has no option but to keep it balanced. He added there is a process in-place, and discounts available, to help those in-need.

Deputy Colthurst also touched on the proposed introduction of Special Responsibility Allowances (SRA), which are paid to members holding positions such as committee chairs. “We must look cautiously, and tread carefully, at the concept of Special Responsibility Allowances,” he said. “Any such compensation needs to be credible, and affordable. The budget may have set aside some provisions, but there is no compulsion to spend them.” Following further questions, members voted to approve the budget proposals.

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