Smaller authorities set for funding cut

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PARISH and town councils across Northumberland are bracing themselves for a significant budget cut.

Although efforts are on-going at a national and local level, these authorities are set to lose thousands following changes to the way the council-tax benefits system is administered.

If this does happen, they face having to make up the shortfall by increasing the council tax precept, reducing expenditure or a combination of the two.

The new system came into force in April when the Government passed on responsibility for administration to principal councils, including Northumberland County Council.

Households that received council-tax benefit were removed fully or partly from the council tax-paying base and this meant parish and town council precepts had to be paid for by a smaller number of householders.

To help compensate for this reduction, the Government provided councils with a grant. However, in Northumberland, this grant is estimated to be 12 to 13 per cent lower than the costs of the new scheme.

This year, the county council passed on the funding gap proportionately to the smaller authorities to cover the shortfall, but at the time officers warned that it was a one-off.

This was still the message at a recent meeting, so although no firm decision has been made yet, parish and town councils are expecting to have to deal with the cut.

Ponteland will not be affected as much as other areas – for example, the reduction in Morpeth would be about £40,000 – however, the town council is the latest authority to make an objection.

Coun Robin Ramsay said: “If help to cover the funding gap is not forthcoming, parish and town councils will be in a difficult situation as they will need to take some tough decisions to make up the shortfall.

“It is an issue affecting councils across the country, but hopefully the county council will look at it again because some authorities are facing a huge reduction to their budget.”

Lobbying is being carried out locally by the Northumberland Association of Local Councils and nationally by the National Association of Local Councils to try to secure some funding support.

Deputy Leader of the county council, Dave Ledger, said: “Due to the short notice given by the Government in implementing the changes to the council-tax benefit system, last year Northumberland County Council did offer some financial support to parish and town councils for the financial year 2013/14.

“The council is continuing to receive major cuts to its Government grant funding and, as a result, has to make multimillion-pound cuts over the coming years.

“To assist local councils with their financial planning, we did make it clear at the time that it would be very unlikely that the council would be able to support them with funding in future years.

“This decision was made at the budget meeting of the council in February 2013 by the former administration. At a recent town and parish council liaison meeting, this position was discussed and reaffirmed.”