A DOWNTURN in the economy could leave Swindon Borough Council, and its taxpayers, dangerously exposed to high levels of debt.

That’s the fear expressed by Labour councillors to members of the Conservative cabinet, which agreed to move forward with proposals to spend millions of pounds on improving road infrastructure in the east of Swindon ahead of the New Eastern Villages Development.

The administration is going to spend an initial sum of £72m, of which £43m has been granted by central government and the Swindon and Wiltshire LEP, on improvement schemes at the White Hard Roundabout, Gable Cross, the Oxford Road junction with Nythe Road and the Covingham Piccadilly roundabout.

But Labour’s Jim Robbins, the group’s spokesman on strategic planning is worried about increased levels of borrowing.

He said: “The scheme involved borrowing £60m by 2025-26. Even if the money comes back from developers, it means taxpayers will have to find £2.5m a year in debt charges until that time, a cumulative cost of £12m by 2032-33.”

Coun Robbins quoted the council’s own report on the schemes which says: “Developer contributions are subject to agreements being reached with developers and housing numbers being built out as expected and there is therefore significant risk and impact on Council finances if these are not received in full, or paid later than expected.”

He added that he, as well as the council’s leader David Renard and deputy leader Russell Holland, attended a Local Government Association conference addressed by the governor of the Bank Of England, Mark Carney who had pessimistic things to say about the immediate economic future.

He added: “I found it really frightening, and there’s Brexit as well. The cabinet itself acknowledges there’s significant risk, and the council doesn’t own the land, so if the housing market slows, if the developments don’t proceed, it can’t wait it out, like it did with the Wichelstowe development, where it did own the land.

“It looks like the taxpayers s is taking all the risk, while private developers will be making all the profits.”

The cabinet member for strategic planning, Gary Sumner downplayed the level of borrowing, and said starting the work on the infrastructure before the housing developments were built would be more likely to see them happen.

He said: “The cost of the schemes to start is £72m and £46m of that is already funded.

“Finally the New Eastern Villages developments are staring to happen there are approvals at Foxbridge, at Redlands, there’s an application for 2,500 homes to be built at Lotmead.

“What we don’t want to happen is for the homes to be built and the road system to start creaking, and then we have to fix it, while it’s creaking.

We’re going to do it beforehand, which will encourage developers to move forward.”

He said that the full amount of borrowing would only be needed for additional infrastructure like schools: "Those won't be built if the housing isn't built - so the risk is lessened"

He added: “This is not just some roadworks - these are transformational infrastructure schemes. They will change the face of east Swindon and the gateway into the town at Gable Cross, which is inadequate, and no longer will people face the tired outdated White Hart junction.