Northumberland County Council budget passed: Cuts, capital spending and a tax hike

Northumberland County Council's current home at County Hall in Morpeth.
Northumberland County Council's current home at County Hall in Morpeth.
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A lengthy and sometime lairy debate this afternoon ended with the Labour administration at Northumberland County Council getting its budget for next year approved.

The proposals, which will see £6million of revenue cuts in 2017/18 as well as £380million spent on capital projects, was signed off by the full council. The total spending on capital projects over the next three years up to 2020 is more than £1.1billion.

The authority agreed in February 2016 to raise council tax by 1.99 per cent – the maximum without holding a referendum – again this year, while the council will also accept the Government’s offer to increase council tax by an additional three per cent for use on social care - a total of 4.99 per cent.

And while there was plenty of opposition, the voting numbers in the council chamber mean there was only one successful change to what was proposed - a stalling of the proposed £8.5million to the Alnwick Garden.

As at the cabinet meeting earlier this month, the budget was introduced with a video highlighting some of the council’s aims and achievements – everything from investing in new schools and leisure centres to building new affordable homes, repairing flood damage and finding new sources of income, notably the development company, Arch.

But Lib Dem leader Jeff Reid questioned why the video didn't have anything about the £6million cuts, the £20million cuts to come after that or the five per cent increase in council tax. "You are not focused on the right things," he said. "It's diversion tactics from what's really in here (the budget)."

However, he also said that 'it's not the Labour Party's fault, it's absolutely the Government's fault' and conceded that there was no alternative budget so he would abstain rather than vote against it, because otherwise 'the Government would be down here running things'.

The Conservative group leader, Peter Jackson, did accept that there were capital projects that his group supported such as new car parks in several towns and the leisure investments in the likes of Alnwick Playhouse and the Queen's Hall in Hexham, but that was about all that he was positive about within Labour's plans.

"It is quite clear that the enormous and increasing debts which have been built up over the last four years are the root cause of most of our problems," he said, before going on to lambast the council's development company, Arch, which has 'gone far beyond its original remit, becoming a virtual hedge fund, speculating many millions of taxpayers' money on highly risky propositions. Labour now wants this to increase dramatically to hundreds of millions'.

Coun Jackson added: "Finally, my group's view on the unwanted, white-elephant new County Hall scheme is well known. It is nothing but a vanity project at the vast expense of taxpayers and we still maintain that the true figures have been kept from public scrutiny."

Closing the debate, council and Labour leader Grant Davey criticised the Tories for their empty manifesto promises and their Government's cuts before urging his fellow councillors to 'support our budget if you support our county and its people', adding that it was 'a budget for jobs and a budget for growth'.

Among the capital spending programme, as well as the money for the new council headquarters in Ashington, there is £150million earmarked for third-party loans to the likes of Arch (which Coun Jackson unsuccessfully tried to remove from the budget), but there is also funding for the new sport and leisure facility in Druridge Bay, the 3G pitch for Alnwick Juniors, the conversion of the Alnwick Playhouse into a community hub and new leisure centres in Berwick, Blyth, Morpeth and Ponteland.

Plus, there are significant resources set aside for the school reorganisations in Alnwick, Morpeth and Ponteland and the money to support the reopening of the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne railway line.