Budget focused on the future?

An opposition bid to avoid a rise in council tax for the next two years failed as the administration approved its ‘budget for the future’ this week.

At Tuesday’s meeting of Northumberland County Council’s policy board, the budget for 2015-17, featuring £44m of cuts and more than £350m of capital investment, was approved and will go before the full council on Wednesday, February 25.

One aspect of this is the refusal of the Government’s grant to freeze council tax for 2015-16, which would amount to £1.7m for Northumberland, but is described as a bribe by the council leader Grant Davey.

Council tax is therefore set to rise by 1.99 per cent – the maximum allowed without calling a referendum – in the forthcoming year and is likely to do so the following year, depending on referendum rules.

Lib Dem group leader Jeff Reid, proposing the authority accepts the grant and freezes council tax, said: “You’re asking the people of Northumberland for more money when there’s no need for it.”

He was backed by Conservative group leader Peter Jackson, who added: “I think it’s wrong to put up council tax.”

But Independent group leader Paul Kelly said: “It’s a con, it’s a deliberate attempt to weaken local government. It’s because of an agenda and that agenda is privatisation.”

With regards to the cuts from central government, it was once again highlighted that the council felt the Government’s published spending power figures minimised the impact cuts were having, as they included ring-fenced funding and money not under the direct control of councils.

The figures showed a reduction from £307m to £304m, but stripping out the ring-fenced money saw Northumberland’s Settlement Funding Assessment fall from £139m to just over £119m – a drop of more than 14 per cent, although this is slightly less than the average nationwide.

Last week, the council received a welcome increase in its Revenue Support Grant of £460,000 to help respond to local welfare needs and improve social-care provision.

Nonetheless, the Labour administration wanted to focus on the investment in aspects like housing and leisure services in what was described by Coun Davey as a ‘budget focused firmly on our future – in investment, education and jobs’.

Coun Allan Hepple added: “We want the county to grow and prosper in the future and to do that we need to create more jobs and build more homes. I think the budget supports those aims, it’s an ambitious plan for investment.”

But as ever with political wrangling at County Hall, while the administration focused on the positives, opposition members are less than impressed with a number of the proposals.

Coun Jackson said: “You’re moaning about funding cuts but you have also got this massive increase in capital expenditure.

“In the next two years, you will be okay and you will probably get through, but in the long term the viability of this council is being affected by this council.”

The council has already saved £160m over the last five years.