Post-16 transport charges to be axed in Tories’ first budget

Coun Peter Jackson, leader of Northumberland Conservatives, outside County Hall in Morpeth.

Transport charges for post-16 students are to be abolished for the next academic year, the leader of Northumberland County Council has pledged.

Provision to axe the unpopular policy, which was introduced by the previous Labour council in the face of protests from rural areas, has been made in the first budget by the Conservative administration, which took power last May.

Described by the council leadership as ‘prudent and considered’, the financial plan includes cuts – or efficiencies in local-authority jargon – of £65.1million from 2018 to 2022 alongside the ‘most ambitious capital programme the county has ever had’ of £580million.

Coun Peter Jackson, Conservative group and council leader, said: “We have bold and ambitious plans for the future, but we need to balance our books. By doing this, we’ll be much better placed to help support a thriving local economy and deliver value for money for the communities we serve.

“This year has very much being about putting things right, protecting essential services, and plugging historic cost pressures through increased demand in services.

The abolition of post-16 charges was a manifesto pledge of the Conservatives, but reports last year suggested that it may be watered down so that the fees were simply reduced.

But speaking to the Gazette yesterday, Coun Jackson said: “Free post-16 transport is very much a part of this budget.

“It’s a very complex programme and there will be a statutory consultation process, but there’s no doubt that we are going to get rid of what was seen as a tax of £600 on students.

“There’s an absolute promise to do that by the start of the academic year in September.”

Schools are set to be the beneficiary of £132million of capital funding over the next four years, with almost £70million to be spent on roads, £10million on car parks and £23million on leisure centres.

There is also £17million earmarked for the refurbishment of County Hall, which has been leapt on by the Labour opposition who were constantly criticised by the Tories for trying to move the council’s headquarters to a new building in Ashington.

Coun Grant Davey, the Labour leader, said it ‘must be the most expensive lick of paint in the history of the county and it’ll be residents who pick up the tab’. Labour also criticised the proposed 2.99 per cent rise in council tax, with further 1.99 per cent rises slated for the following years.

Efficiencies and savings

Reductions of £8.2million are proposed for the coming financial year, followed by £21.1million in 2019-20, rising to £65.1million in total over the course of the 2018-22 medium-term financial plan.

“Since this administration took over last May, we’ve been working hard to bring forward achievable budget proposals that deliver savings and have tangible benefits,” said Coun Jackson.

“Service demand is set to continue, whether it’s repairing our roads or looking after the most vulnerable in our society, so the next three years will be more challenging and have a significant impact on the way we deliver services over that period.

“We are determined to stabilise core services by diverting resources where they are most needed.”

The schedule of efficiencies mentions items like ‘review of HR team’ and ‘review of the provision of public conveniences’, which raise the possibility of redundancies and the closure of toilets respectively.

Challenged on this, Coun Jackson said: “We will have a fundamental look at how services are being provided. It doesn’t always mean closures, it could mean doing things in a different way, it could mean working with town and parish councils or community groups.

“It’s an open process and we should look at the best way of providing services in different places across our vast county.”

Coun Nick Oliver, the cabinet member for corporate resources, added: “The overall situation is tough. There’s more demand for services and there has been a systemic lack of investment in some of our infrastructure.

“There are some difficult decisions to make, but we are determined to do that in consultation with communities. The council won’t be able to provide all of the same services it has done.

“We are trying to make it more transparent, partly for the public, but partly for the officers so they can understand what they are doing with their own budgets. We want to take a more whole-picture approach rather than chip away arbitrarily at different bits.”

The Conservatives say that the context to the cuts is £60million of financial pressures identified in the previous budget, which includes £26million of savings which weren’t delivered, £10million of savings yet to be identified and almost £20million for Arch, from which they say there has never been any dividend. There is also another £1.2million a year needed to fund Active Northumberland properly and £3million for children’s social care.

Capital spending

Despite this backdrop, the administration says it is ‘still very much forward-looking and ambitious for our future’.

Coun Jackson said: “Our capital programme is the biggest ever delivered in the county and will invest £580million in physical infrastructure like new schools, transport and highway improvements, as well as new homes across Northumberland.

“These are all priorities for the council and the programme reflects this – vanity projects and speculative, high-risk investments are no more, targeted investments will be based on sound and prudent financial management, and return on investment.

“This capital programme of investment is strengthened further by securing the North of Tyne devolution deal, bringing in £600million over 30 years; combined with new powers, the deal is expected to generate £1.1billion for the local economy, create 10,000 new jobs and leverage more than £2.1billion in private-sector investment.”

On top of the spending mentioned above, there is also £35.7million for a new programme of housing to rent and £21million for a loans fund to support start-up businesses.

A further £4.5million is required for the streetlight replacement programme, over and above the original £23.4million and an additional £4million approved for this year, while a big talking point is the £17million earmarked for the refurbishment of County Hall.

Defending this investment, Coun Jackson said: “We decided on day one not to waste millions and millions of pounds to move six miles up the road to Ashington.

“Since 1985, there has been no investment in this building. We can save significant money on operational costs and free up a up a wing to create an innovation and growth centre to encourage new employment opportunities in Northumberland. We hope to deliver those in all of the main towns in the county.”

Alongside the relocation of the council’s HQ, the Conservatives were also highly critical of the mounting debt created by the previous administration as it borrowed money to fund capital expenditure.

Of course, the new leadership is still going to be borrowing money, but it says that the total debt at the end of the four-year plan in 2022 will £1billion rather than £1.5billion. Coun Oliver said that servicing £1million of debt costs the council £60,000, so the reduction of the debt by £500million will save the authority £30million.

Coun Jackson added: “We have been effective already at drawing in outside money, particularly Government money.

“The council has had some financial problems, we are dealing with them, zero-basing the budget and wiping the slate clean, but it is still very ambitious.”

Council tax

Equating to 85 pence per household per week for a band D property, council tax is set to rise by 2.99 per cent from April – the maximum increase permitted by the Government without triggering a referendum, but there is also an additional two per cent rise ring-fenced for adult social care, raising £3.3million.

It is proposed in the medium-term financial plan that this is followed by further 1.99 per cent rises in 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22. Another one per cent increase for social care is slated for 2019-20.

“We are not in the comfortable position of being able to say there will be no council-tax rise,” Coun Jackson said.

“The inflation rate is round about three per cent so we are proposing a rise around that so that we can maintain local services at the best standard possible.”

He added: “Our approach needs to be transformational in terms of integrating services and developing new ways of working, as well as exploring more opportunities to generate income. However, we need to address a number of legacy issues and areas where our basic infrastructure has been neglected for many years.”

The opposition’s view

Coun Grant Davey, leader of Northumberland Labour Group, said: “After claiming inflated costs and pie-in-the-sky figures for Labour’s new HQ in Ashington, the Tories are having to face up to the truth that despite trying to spin their way out of the facts, they’re spinning into their own maelstrom. We now know it’ll cost at least £17million to update County Hall which was branded by independent assessors as ‘not value for money’.

“It’s been revealed through FOIs that it’ll cost at least £9million and rising to get out of the Portland Park contract with the council confirming they do not expect to agree terms on that contract in the foreseeable future and the Tory council team, who attended the Ashington and Blyth Area Council to show useless and meaningless figures to explain their budget losses, showed the running costs of County Hall, Morpeth, as £3million per annum, compared with Labour’s new HQ at £400,000 per annum.

“Yes, that’s £12million over the next four years to heat and light County Hall. Labour’s plans to move to Ashington would have been profitable for the council after year four and the Tory lick of paint plan will saddle future generations with huge running costs for at least 20 years.

“The reality is that Tory decisions like this, scrapping Arch and removing the Core Strategy have created not only misery for those caught up in the Tories’ mad decision-making such as the good folk from New Hartley, but created a £65million black hole in the council’s finances.

“The Morpeth County Hall decision by Coun Jackson must be the most expensive lick of paint in the history of the county and it’ll be residents who pick up the tab with an eight per cent-plus rise in council tax over the next two years and eye-watering cuts to fill their newly-created black hole.”

Coun Scott Dickinson, the Labour group chairman, said: “With the council proposing an eight per cent increase in council tax and many parish councils now facing large increases in the precept to deliver services recently transferred by this administration, it’s a double hit for residents of Northumberland.

“While hard-working parish councils struggle to raise the cash, the Tories plan to spend a fortune on a refurbishment to the tune of £17million that provides no savings over time; at least the Ashington option was an invest-to-save scheme with regeneration benefits too.

“With Universal Credit marching into Northumberland and the problems experienced with that up and down the country, further pressure on families to deal with Tory cuts is not acceptable from a Tory Group who complained about small council-tax increases in previous years. This will be the largest the council and, in turn, Northumberland has ever seen.”

Next steps

The budget proposals are being outlined at the five local area councils this month and will go before the council’s scrutiny committee next Thursday before being up for approval at the full council meeting on Wednesday, February 21.

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