SOARING returns from an investment in Manchester Airport have helped cash-strapped Wigan Council slash debts.
But council bosses are warning that “huge challenges” lie ahead with £41m of cuts to come and further job losses not ruled out.
Since 2011, almost £32m of the local authority’s debt was paid off, helped by a £2.3m dividend from its airport group share last year.
The council’s annual accounts went before the audit committee this week and leader Lord Smith said prudent decisions had helped it cope with “unprecedented” government cuts.
He said: “We are only half-way through the savings programme. But, at this mid-point, we’re in a position of strength because we’ve taken tough decisions and acted quickly.
“These accounts show our books are in good shape and we’re in a strong financial position considering what we’ve been dealing with.”
Almost £19m of cuts were achieved last year, the accounts reveal, with a further £14m needed in 2014/15, £41m over the next three years.
A major reorganisation of services has already resulted in job losses with the Wigan Evening Post’s revealing last week that Wigan Leisure and Culture Trust is to hand some powers back to the council.
Council leaders have urged residents to continue their support of the Wigan Deal: the council’s plan to help it ease the effects of the cuts.
In return for a freeze of council taxes, Wiganers have been asked to increase recycling rates and volunteer in community groups.
Deputy chief executive Paul McKevitt said the investment in Manchester Airport had been justified with the return for last year more than double the expected figure.
And although efforts would be made to reduce job losses, some are to be expected given the extent of the savings required.
He said: “The airport dividend boost has enabled us to pay off debt so that we don’t have to worry as much about paying interest on that debt, which helps us set the budget.
“People thought when we watered down the share-hold (from five per cent to three, last year) the dividend would go, but because of the private investment in the airport and the acquisition of Stansted Airport, we knew our share-holding was actually going to go up.
“All indications are that the dividend with be around £1.5m plus each year.”
Lord Smith added: “It’s been hugely challenging managing the scale of cuts we’ve received from central government and we have a huge challenge ahead of us.
“With the public’s help, we are confident we can continue to transform rather than slash services and protect those services that support our most vulnerable.”