County accused of blackmail over parish services

ANGER is mounting after town and parish councils have been told they face the prospect of paying for vital community services, or risk losing them.

One parish councillor has described the move as ‘blackmail’, amid fears that residents will be hit with a substantial hike on council tax bills as town and parish councils would have to increase their precepts – some by up to four times as much.

The fury comes after a letter was sent out from Northumberland County Council informing local councils that they should consider adopting services from the authority – including public halls and community centres, burial grounds and public conveniences – from April this year.

The letter, entitled Provision of Local Services and the 2011/12 Budget, says that there is a realistic possibility that a number of services will either reduce or stop altogether, subject to approval by the county council at its budget meeting in February.

It acknowledges that not all of the services, which also include litter collection, grass-cutting, and flower beds and floral displays, relate to every town or parish council but adds that they should consider adoption of any or all of these services – or the alternative could be ‘a lower level of service provision which may, in some circumstances, mean no provision’.

Local councils have been told that they may wish to buy the service from the county council or enter into local arrangements, but the cost of services adopted will need to be built into the 2011/12 precept.

But local councillors have hit back.

And there have been criticisms about the timing of the letter, with some parish and town councils having already set their precepts for 2011/12, and complaints that the latest proposals have come out of the blue, are confusing and contrary to what local councillors had been previously told.

Coun Steven Bridgett, who represents the Rothbury division on the county council, said: “What the county council is trying to do is tantamount to blackmail.

“What we are being told is that if the parish and town councils do not take these services on, we will lose them, yet the county council is still expecting the taxpayer to pay them the same amount of money and it is the parish and town councils who will have to raise their precepts to fill the void – in many cases doubling or tripling the current precepts.

“In the case of Alnham, Whittingham and Callaly Parish Council, their precept would quadruple, from just under £5,000 to over £20,000.”

He said that, on paper, Rothbury Parish Council is being asked to take on an extra £80,000-worth of services, which would see the parish council precept jump from £28,000 to £108,000.

He added: “Parish councils and taxpayers must fight this – we cannot expect the taxpayer to foot the bill for services twice.”

At Amble Town Council, members expressed their shock and disbelief after being told that their £99,000-a-year precept would have to rise by £165,000 if they wanted to retain all services currently provided by the county council.

Coun Helen Lewis said: “That’s the amount we were told the county spends on the likes of grass cutting, litter collection and public conveniences, which we will have to pick up if we want those services to continue.

“I’m extremely annoyed at the way this has been done. We wanted to keep any increase in our precept to one per cent. By January 24, we have to tell the county what we want to include, which will become our responsibility from April 1.

“Even if we were to take on half of these services, it will have a major impact.”

In Alnwick, extra services would see the town council’s precept more than double.

Coun Gordon Castle, Alnwick town and county councillor, said the letter had caused ‘widespread consternation’ and local tax payers would be hit with a substantial rise in council tax bills for the same services.

A special finance committee meeting for Alnwick Town Council was held last night to discuss the issue.

Speaking before it, Coun Castle said: “My view is, members of that committee will not wish to make any decision based on this completely unexpected list of services that we have been asked to consider at this late stage.

“My recommendation will be to inform the county council that we need to look at this very carefully over a longer period of time and recommend that we do not change our precept to fund these activities.”

David Rixon, a member of Newton on the Moor and Swarland Parish Council, said their own precept would rise from just under £13,000 a year to over £31,000 if it had to take on extra services.

“We are working in the dark,” he said. “We’re being asked to set our precept by the end of the month, but we won’t know what we’re getting from the county council until the end of February.

“I think this will cause total and utter outrage among parish and town councils. We have always tried to be responsible knowing the burden local council tax payers are already under, so we weren’t expecting the county council to act so irresponsibly.

“It’s absolutely appalling.”

Anger was also voiced at East Chevington Parish Council on Monday night.

Coun Scott Dickinson said: “It makes the parish look like the robber. If the parish doesn’t take it on, they will lose the service but if they do, people will have to pay more for it.”

Parish council chairman Kay Morris added: “Residents are going to have to pay extra for services they are already getting or they will lose them. It is not right.”

Andrew Tebbutt, executive member for corporate resources at the county council, said Government announcements about funding for local authorities presented the authority with the toughest budgetary situation in living memory and savings would lead to cuts.

He said: “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. One option is that parish and town councils may choose to take on these services, which are not statutory and are valued locally. Many parish and town councils have already done this.

“The fall-out from these announcements is that the county council will have to make approximately £110million savings during the next four years.

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

Parish and town councillors can give their views at the Area Committee meetings.

The overall budget proposals will be subject to discussion at the three Area Committees which are being held next week. The North Area Committee takes place on Monday at 6pm at the council chambers on Clayport Street, Alnwick.