CIVIC chiefs in Winchester have denied not acting fast enough to tackle the financial crisis caused by coronavirus.

The city council is losing millions of pounds with a collapse in revenue from car parking, River Park Leisure Centre, council tax and business rates. A pessimistic forecast is for a deficit of £12 million on an annual revenue budget of £18m.

The opposition Conservative councillor Stephen Godfrey, speaking at the first virtual Cabinet meeting yesterday evening, said: "There is a huge hole in our finances and there does not seem to be any urgency to sort it out.

"We must not rely on a Government bailout, above what we have already received, or assume the Government will come along and rescue us because our local income has dried up."

Cllr Neil Cutler, cabinet member for finance and risk, replied that it was "quite ludicrous" to suggest that the council had been slow to act.

Tory councillor Hugh Lumby said the council needed to be flexible with ideas, suggesting hospitality businesses could use public spaces such as Abbey Gardens.

Cabinet heard there had been recent meetings with major stakeholders in the city such as the universities, the BID and cathedral, to see what the council can do to help.

Meetings would be held in the market towns such as Alresford and Bishop's Waltham as well as Whiteley.

Council leader Lucille Thompson paid tribute to council staff for rising to the challenge, maintaining services and also helping with the direct response to the pandemic. "Our staff have stepped up to the challenge and I'm really proud of them."

Waste collections had been maintained and Cllr Martin Tod said the service had actually improved, with a third fewer missed bins than in April 2019, the time of well-publicised problems for the Biffa contractor.

The lockdown had meant that the binmen were dealing with as much glass as at Christmas and a big increase in green waste with the closure of the recycling centres. A thousand new green waste bags had been distributed, he said.

So far the Government response has been funding totalling £1.28 million. Cllr Thompson said: "At the start of the crisis the Government said 'spend what t takes, you will be reimbursed'. We took them at their word. We hope they will honour their promise to us so we can continue to provide high-quality services to local people."

The Cabinet agreed an outline Restoration and Recovery Plan including discretionary business support to help struggling businesses and the writing off of commercial rents from its tenants from March to June 2020. Thirty-five tenants have sought help.

A new emergency budget is set to be approved in July.

Cllr Godfrey called on the council to invest in capital projects to secure a long-term income.

A report to cabinet by chief executive Laura Taylor said: "The council has already experienced a major downturn in projected income and is likely to also experience difficulties in collecting payments in relation to council tax and business rates. Initial forecasting indicates potential year end deficits of between £6m and £12m, subject to a range of assumptions resulting in the 'optimistic' and 'pessimistic' scenarios as set out in the report.

"With a net revenue budget of £18.5m, some significant decisions will need to be taken in the next two months to ensure the council is able to mitigate against the potential deficits."

Income from car parks had crashed from £430,000 in April 2019 to £5,000 last month; for commercial property the figures are £272,000 and £159,000; the Guildhall £64,000 to nil as it is closed; planning £129,000 to £111,000.

The council currently has £9.5 million in available reserves which would tide it over in the short and medium term.