Councils accuse county hall chiefs of blackmail

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County council chiefs have come in for criticism over plans to transfer services to parish and town councils.

Leaders of councils in south east Northumberland have accused the unitary authority of blackmail after announcing proposals to offload some of its responsibilities.

Seaton Valley Town Council chairman Bob Watson, pictured, said: “Parish councils have been handed bills of up to £950,000.

“My own council has been given the choice of paying out from public funds some £500,000 to pay for services we are already paying for through our council tax to the county council.

“We have been given less than two weeks to decide on this issue – two weeks to decide whether or not we saddle our residents with a 400 per cent increase.”

Parish and town councils were sent letters last month informing them of the proposed changes.

Ashington Town Council leader John McCormack said: “We were astonished when we got the letter.

“It was an ultimatum, and it was blackmail.

“The county were saying that if you do not take control of the services, they could be withdrawn or reduced significantly, and you have a week to make that decision.

“In Ashington, we were astonished to find that the cost of delivering services would be £873,000.

“We have a budget of £170,000, which would mean a 500 per cent increase. That is clearly a nonsense.”

No final decisions have been made yet, and some councils are waiting to pass formal resolutions before making comment.

Cramlington town clerk Bob Baker said: “We are not against taking services over, and there are services that fall within the legislation that can be run by us. It’s just that we want it to be done on a level playing field.”

Andrew Tebbutt, executive member for corporate resources at the county council, said: “The government has made a number of announcements around funding for local authorities, and these present us with the toughest budgetary situation in living memory.

“The fallout from these announcements is that the county council will have to make approximately £110m in savings during the next four years.

“This follows £50m savings that have already been made during the two previous years.

“These are very difficult times for the authority.

“We are committed to providing first-class services, but the level of savings required will inevitably lead to cuts, and we now face some incredibly difficult choices about where these cuts will fall.

“All council services and the way in which they are provided are being considered as part of this budgetary process.

“No final decisions have been made as yet and representatives from parish and town councils will be able to put forward their views and suggestions at the meetings scheduled for later this month.

“One option is that parish and town councils may choose to take on these services, which are not statutory but are valued locally.

“Many parish and town councils have already done this.”

John Morris, former County Council Chairman and Chairman of Education for Northumberland said: “It’s with disbelief I watch this administration ruin the four star authority that was, how can it be right or justified to attempt to force residents who have already paid for these services to pay more, residents are already squeezed in this current climate and Central Government decisions are making that even worse.

“Now we see Local authorities acting in this manner, it would seem they have lost all moral values about providing services and being an authority Northumberland residents can be proud of rather than a bullying authority forcing services onto Parish Councils simply because they can’t raise the council tax but Parish Councils can, it’s simply wrong.”