Meeting on after Pickles’ criticism

Public debate on controversial council decisions will finally take place after a cancelled meeting was rescheduled.

But Northumberland County Council leaders say the move could cost taxpayers about £45,000.

A full council meeting was originally due to take place this week, but was called off by the Labour Administration, citing a lack of business.

The cancellation sparked fury from Opposition members, who said it denied scrutiny of key decisions, particularly the axing of free post-16 student transport, which parents had threatened to protest about.

Northumberland Conservatives referred the cancellation to the Local Government Ombudsman and in Parliament Hexham MP Guy Opperman brought it to the attention of Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles.

Mr Pickles said: “Part of the process of being a local councillor is being accountable to the electorate. They should just stop hiding and face the facts.”

An emergency motion calling for an extraordinary meeting was submitted and it has now been confirmed that it will take place on Friday, July 11, at 9.30am.

Conservative Group Leader Peter Jackson said: “The county council has done everything possible to avoid being publicly accountable.

“It’s all over this issue of the £600 teenage tax. Now it will have to answer serious questions about how unfair this is to post-16 students. I just hope that the Labour Administration will see sense and re-think the policy.

“However, I’m very suspicious about fixing the time of the meeting at 9.30am because it makes it extremely difficult for parents and young people to come along.”

He also disputed claims that the saga will cost the council about £45,000.

“Labour is saying this meeting is going to cost a lot of money. That is absolute rubbish,” he said.

“The officers work at County Hall anyway and they get paid whether they go to a meeting or not. The only extra cost may be councillors travelling, but that wouldn’t be more than about £1,000.”

Labour says a conservative estimate of total costs are £18,000 in lost savings from cancelling the meeting, £2,000 on administration, £5,000 on communications support and £2,000 on extra security for the parents’ demonstration.

It says that taking legal advice on the cancellation of the meeting cost £7,500, and advice on the student transport decision cost £10,000.

Council Leader Grant Davey said: “The truth is that Coun Jackson did not call the post-16 decision in, which was his right under the constitution, and he’s now got a meeting to play party political games.

“The saving to the council for the original cancelled meeting was £18,000. That’s now lost because of Coun Jackson’s political grandstanding.

“In addition, both he and MP Guy Opperman have called the decision to cancel the meeting illegal. The council has incurred additional expenditure and there has been an inordinate amount of officer time spent setting out how the decisions were legal. We even needed legal advice on whether Coun Jackson’s motion was legal and there are questions for him to answer.

“He needs to face facts — his decision to play politics with the post-16 issue will end up costing the taxpayer around £45,000.”