Council in U-turn after parish revolt

COUNCIL bosses have done a U-turn over proposed cuts to valued community services after outcry from parishes.

Northumberland County Council wrote to parish authorities earlier this month giving them a list of local services that it was considering no longer providing.

The councils were warned that the services, such as grass cutting, bus shelters, playgrounds and public toilets, could be lost unless they were prepared to take them on from April and a breakdown of the costs was provided.

But some parishes balked at the budget implications of the move, which could see their precepts rise fourfold in some cases, and criticised the two-week deadline for a response.

There was also anger that residents may be forced to pay twice for services, with special charges on top of council tax bills.

Now the county council has dropped the proposals to allow more time for discussion with the parish bodies.

Council Leader Jeff Reid said: “In setting the 2011/12 budget, the Liberal Democrat Administration will no longer consider proposals to reduce or remove the local services listed within our recent communication.

“Instead, we will work with parish councils over the next six months to understand the precise local picture, the costs and implications for each parish and come to a mature agreement.

“The scale of the financial challenge remains, but I hope this will give us a more realistic timeframe to work together to ensure any valued services can continue to be delivered and sustained.”

The authority was considering the cuts as it looks to save around £110million over the next four years.

However, Coun Reid says it was never the intention to force parishes to take on the services or double-charge taxpayers.

“These are very tough financial times for the authority and we have been looking at all our services to see if they can be provided in a more effective or efficient way,” he said.

“One option we have been exploring is for parish councils to consider taking on some local services that are currently provided by NCC. A letter was sent out at the request of NALC (Northumberland Association of Local Councils) to inform town and parish councils how much we consider the delivery of those services would cost so that parishes could make an informed decision.

“It has never been our intention to impose the delivery of services onto parishes, or that residents would be charged twice for services, however I understand there has been some misunderstanding of the issue and I have spoken to many parish councils to understand fully their concerns.”

Morpeth Town Council had been planning to delay setting its budget until the last minute so that it could consider taking on at risk services that it considered vital to the town.

However, Chairman of its Finance and General Purposes Committee David Parker said that as the situation has now changed, he will present a budget for approval next week.

He said: “The county council is saying that it can’t see the situation arising in relation to services this year, but it could very likely see it happening with some of these services next year and if we are interested in picking up some of those it will be talking to us in the next 12 months in order that we can make that decision.

“What it is really saying is that it is a storm in a teacup at the moment, but it may not be in the future.

“From Morpeth Town Council’s point of view, I shall be going to the council on Wednesday to say that the finance committee is recommending that the council in principle thinks about picking up one or other of these services, but that we don’t need to think about it at the moment. Therefore I shall simply present a budget without any additional services.”

However, anger remains about the issue in East Chevington Parish Council.

Member Scott Dickinson said: “The mismanagement and total lack of understanding by the county council has caused outrage within parish councils across Northumberland.

“Many parish councillors had been left in the dark till the last minute and a poorly written letter almost amounted to blackmail of volunteer councillors who work within their communities.”

Chairman and former Castle Morpeth Mayor Kay Morris added: “It’s simply morally wrong to ask residents to pay more for services they already receive from the county council — yes, we are all aware savings need to be made, but alternative routes are available.

“Should the administration be more open and transparent it may find more parish councillors willing to participate, however with letters sent to parish councils in such a manner in which the county council did who can blame councillors for reacting like this?”

At its last meeting, Ponteland Town Council unanimously voted to delay setting a precept because of uncertainty over the county council’s figures.