THE county council has denied claims that £1m has been set aside to pay for consultants and advice on privatising services.
The local authority is currently investigating ways of making savings of £74m over the next three years.
Included is the possible privatisation of some council services.
A Cramlington town councillor, speaking from the public gallery at a meeting of the county’s south east area committee in Ashington Leisure Centre, claimed £1m had been identified to pay for consultants.
But officers and members at the meeting denied any knowledge of the deal.
Democratic services manager Paddy Gascoigne said he did not recognise the figure of £1m.
Liberal Democrat executive member Coun Tom Brechany said: “The reason we are looking at the idea of private provision is we have got to save £74m over the next three years and we are looking at everything.
“I have never heard of this £1m being spent on consultants – there was no mention of that whatsoever.”
Labour leader Coun Grant Davey said it was disconcerting if the council was not looking at options other than wholesale privatisation.
“If a company can produce profits for its shareholders out of any contract, we should be able to produce services and savings on those services because we don’t need to produce profits,” he said.
“It’s a major problem for people. It threatens their jobs, it threatens their families and it threatens local businesses.
“We should have a full and proper public debate to see whether the people in south east Northumberland wish to have a privatised council or whether they are happy to have a council which may have to reduce some services but will still be able to produce services.”
Coun Brechany assured him the decisions would not be rushed through.
He said a report would go to the executive in late July and the final decision would be taken by the full council, not by the executive.
As revealed by the News Post Leader in mid-April, executive member for corporate resources Coun Andrew Tebbutt argued that the county faces a “perfect storm” of government pressures to cut spending next year, coupled with growing demand for care of elderly people.
Though it had already cut £100m, it needed to save another £74m over three or four years – the equivalent of 1,000 jobs on top of those 1,300 which have already gone.
It wanted to save jobs by forming a Public Private Partnership (PPP).
Council leader Coun Jeff Reid later denied £1m had been set aside for consultants and said the cost of the various fees involved was not yet known.
“When you haven’t got expertise to hand sometimes you’ve got to buy it in.
“But we are not anywhere near the point where any money has been allocated for anything.
“What you have got to remember is the council is a half-billion-pound organisation, so when you want to do things it’s going to cost money.
“I have no idea what the figure will be.
“Until we have identified a strategic partner and started down the path of discussing what we might do together, then really there isn’t very much to talk about.”