‘Cutting grass not cutting jobs’ – Northumberland’s council budget approved

The Conservative's white elephant campaign at County Hall, Morpeth, yesterday. Picture by Peter McCartney
The Conservative's white elephant campaign at County Hall, Morpeth, yesterday. Picture by Peter McCartney

Depending on who you listen to, the new county-council financial plan is either a ‘cloak-and-dagger budget’ or a bold vision for the future.

The leader of the council and the Labour administration, Grant Davey, put it more simply: “This is a budget of cutting grass, not cutting jobs.”

At the full meeting of Northumberland County Council yesterday afternoon, the budget for 2015-17, featuring £44million of cuts and more than £350million of capital investment, was approved.

Introducing the proposals, deputy leader Dave Ledger set out that despite financial constraints, this budget is a ‘bold vision’ which will help to create jobs while boosting economic growth and fairness. This is against a backdrop of a 14.3 per cent drop in core funding, far higher than the Government’s published figures, which include ringfenced finance, such as money for schools.

The main criticism from Lib Dem leader Jeff Reid was the refusal of the Government’s grant to freeze council tax for 2015-16, amounting to £1.7million for Northumberland, but described as a ‘bribe’ by Coun Davey. Council tax is therefore set to rise by 1.99 per cent – the maximum allowed without calling a referendum - from April and is likely to do so the following year.

Conservative leader Peter Jackson described it as cloak and dagger as the administration ‘is not being straight about a lot of the cuts it is making, some of which will hit the most vulnerable’.

Coun Jackson did say the Conservative group agreed with a range of efficiencies across the authority and also conceded that the capital programme of investment contained some sensible items.

However, he expressed grave concerns about what were described as reviews to certain key services, saying that he doesn’t see how the amount of money necessary can be saved in the fire service other than by closing fire stations, likewise the library service.

Also, he pointed out that the capital spending will take the council’s debt to close to £1billion, which means that in future the council may be spending 20 per cent of its revenue budget servicing that debt, with interest rates certain to rise at some point in the future.

Coun Reid said: “Whatever party is in power after May, the reality for local government is that this (cuts and financial constraints) is going to grind on for the next decade because we are seen as an easy target.”

He said that Labour continually ‘bangs on about the cost of living’, but the one thing the council has in its power to control is council tax and the administration chooses to increase it. “You should have taken the grant you were offered and not taken more from the people of Northumberland,” he added.

But Independent group leader, Coun Paul Kelly, criticised both opposition leaders, describing Coun Jackson as the great illusionist and Coun Reid as the great delusionist. He said that the grant from Government to freeze council tax was solely designed to reduce the council-tax base and weaken local government. “This budget reflects my philosophy of invest to save,” he added.

Later on, drawing the debate to a close, Coun Davey said that the previous Lib Dem administration’s acceptance of the grant had meant that a further £16million had to be cut now.

His last word was to highlight something that he said none of the critics or opponents had picked up on - the fact that the budget allows for all staff to be paid the living wage from October.

The proposed move of County Hall from Morpeth to Ashington continues to be a thorny issue, but a Tory motion, by Coun David Bawn, to remove around £20million of funding for either relocation or refurbishment of the council’s HQ from the budget was voted down. Prior to the meeting, the Conservatives had set up a large, inflatable white elephant near County Hall to ram their point home.

The opposition was assured that the budget allocation was for either relocation or refurbishment and that there would be plenty of further opportunities to discuss the merits of the move.

This was one of the schemes which Coun Davey highlighted after the meeting as part of the ambitious investment programme within the budget, saying a new-build headquarters at Ashington would benefit the whole county - at a build cost of just over £19million.

“This proposed move of the civic building will generate significant economic benefits for the whole of Northumberland,” he said. “We would not be making this investment if it didn’t make sound economic sense. Unfortunately a small minority of opposition councillors seem intent on spreading misinformation about this figure, when in fact they should be asking their own government about the spending settlement they have given us.”

He also highlighted that money is there to support the rebuild of the Duchess’s Community High School in Alnwick, which is set to start soon. “This investment in new schools shows our commitment to education and providing the best possible opportunities for our young people, who are the cornerstone of this county’s future,” Coun Davey said.

He also addressed the rise in council tax and the reasons behind it. “As the Government focuses its public-sector expenditure reduction upon councils, local government is facing unprecedented financial pressure to tackle these huge cuts.

“However our aim is always to be fair to the residents of Northumberland, particularly those who are most vulnerable, and there have been no changes to our support scheme which provides up to 100 per cent funding to households most in need. This is done while maintaining essential services and making improvements wherever possible – and this rise works out at less than the cost of a chocolate bar each week.

“Perhaps if we were in one of the more affluent areas in the country which have benefited from increased business rates income and higher levels of economic growth we could consider a council-tax freeze. As it stands we would just be storing up problems for the future.”