North ‘bearing the brunt’ of cuts

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OPPOSITION councillors have accused Northumberland County Council’s administration of imposing cuts on north Northumberland to maintain services in the south east of the county as details of £48million worth of savings are revealed.

The Conservative opposition on Northumberland County Council has criticised the Lib Dem administration saying that the full draft council budget for 2011-2012 reveals that north Northumberland is being singled out for a range of grant reductions, extra charges and closures of public assets.

But council chiefs denied the claims saying they are ‘nonsense’ and that the council has ‘no bias to any area’ but is trying to ‘equalise’ across the county.

Coun Peter Jackson, leader of Northumberland Conservatives, said, “Northumberland Conservatives accept that the county council is under financial pressure.

“But this cannot excuse singling out north Northumberland for spending cuts in order to maintain services in the South.”

Savings to be made include ending the subsidy to meals on wheels, removing the maximum charge for home care charging people up to the full cost of care, and reducing the home to school transport budget overall.

It also includes a number of cuts to the northern area highways budget and new charges for neighbourhood services – such as waste collection – for events in the north, like Alnwick Food Festival and Alnwick International Music Festival, and events in the west.

“In Alnwick, the Lib Dems are, for a third year in a row, refusing to commit even a penny to the rebuilding of the Duchess’s Community High School, even though they have found enough money to rebuild Ashington leisure centre,” said Coun Jackson.

“Amble is set to be asset stripped, losing its cash office and Tourist Information Centre.

“Rural areas will be hit hardest by proposals to scrap the meals on wheels service and vulnerable elderly people also face a Lib Dem scheme to replace the £90 cap on charges for home care with unlimited fees. Predictably, there is no evidence of a plan for equalising parking charges across the county.

Deputy leader of the council and councillor for Alnwick, Roger Styring said: “No decision will be made on Amble TIC until a decision has been made on what is happening with Northumberland Tourism.

“We decided to close the cash office last year as there are three other outlets where people can make cash payments.

“The highways budget is squeezed but the Government expects us to save £60million.

“We have reduced the budget slightly but have put money in to a contingency fund to cover any undue snow or winter problems.

“Meals on wheels is not being scrapped. We will still be doing meals on wheels, just in a different way and we are looking for organisations to supply it.

“The cap on charges for the elderly that was discussed last year and we compare ourselves with lots of other councils. Like Durham it will be a full cost recovery, and is means tested. That is our proposal.

“The Duchess’s High School is a very emotive issue. I support the rebuild. We have had Michael Gove up here, and he hasn’t given a commitment. We are in discussion with Northumberland Estates and there will be a deal done eventually.

“Even if we agreed to build a new school today it would be three and a half years away so there is no meaningful spend in the budget.

“The school is in reserved matters, just as the Ashington Leisure Centre is.”

Coun Jackson added:“The Lib Dem scheme is for north Northumberland to continue to subsidise the south east, a result of the Lib Dem council leaders being dominated by councillors from Blyth and Wansbeck. Unless this budget is significantly rebalanced to be fair to all of our county, Northumberland Conservatives will not support it.”

But Coun Styring said: “What we are doing is trying to equalise things across the county. We have no bias towards any area, we just don’t do that.

“The overall situation is that we have to make £60.3million of savings. We have reshuffled and are making £45million this financial year and £31million next year.

“It is a really difficult situation and it will be even more difficult next year. Negotiations will be made at the Executive meeting.”

The proposed savings will be discussed at the Executive meeting on Monday, February 7. It will then be taken to the Full Council meeting on Wednesday, February 23.