Council-tax hike of almost 3% plus cut in support concerns opposition councillors

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An almost 3% council-tax hike while cutting support for the most vulnerable were among the concerns as county councillors in south-east Northumberland were given an outline of next year’s proposed budget.

Calls for support to help regenerate Blyth town centre were also high on the agenda as part of a lively debate at the Ashington and Blyth Local Area Council on Wednesday (January 16) night, which saw the Conservative leadership present its proposals to a committee almost entirely made up of Labour opposition members.

Council leader Peter Jackson and cabinet member for corporate services, Nick Oliver, set out that the authority needs to save £36million over the next three years, including £12.8million in 2019-20, with an effort to spread this around all departments while protecting front-line services.

“It’s often said that local-authority funding has been dramatically slashed,” Coun Oliver added. “Central-government grants have been cut, but councils have been able to make more money and keep more of the money they make.”

The medium-term financial plan approved by the council last February assumed a 1.99 per cent increase in council tax for 2019-20, following a 2.99 per cent hike last year, but the proposal is now for another 2.99 per cent rise.

Opposition councillors pointed out that this comes at the same time as the eight per cent reduction in council-tax support, a controversial cost-cutting measure to save £1million a year which was given final approval this month.

But the Tory response remains that the previous Labour administration planned to reduce the support by far more than this – although this is refuted – and it was also pointed out that similar council-tax rises would have followed had Labour retained power anyway.

Coun Oliver said that the context to the cuts was the £65million black hole that the Conservatives were left with when Labour left office in May 2017, although Labour’s Coun Lynne Grimshaw described this as ‘a load of tosh’. “The Labour administration was delivering,” she added.

A large part of the presentation focused on what Coun Jackson described as ‘the most ambitious capital-spending programme the county has ever seen’ of £580million.

He highlighted investment in everything from housing to parks, town centres to transport, with particular local references to the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne rail line (now dubbed the Northumberland to Newcastle line), the regeneration of Ashington and Blyth town centres, a Blyth relief road, Ashwood Business Park and the Energy Central project linked to the Port of Blyth.

The Labour response was to point out that a number of these projects were started or developed by their administration, but Coun Oliver said: “You are good at starting things and talking about them, what we hope you see over the remaining two-and-a-half years of our administration is that we are good at getting things off the ground.”

Coun Brian Gallacher, who represents the Haydon ward, said: “For Ashington, Blyth and the whole of south-east Northumberland, we don’t need any more promises, we need outcomes.”

But Coun Jeff Reid, the Lib Dem leader, said that the focus of the presentation and debate was all wrong – talking about the capital spending programme instead of the cuts and the detail of where the axe was going to fall next year to save the £12.8million.

However, he gave Couns Jackson and Oliver credit for turning up to the meeting to defend their budget proposals.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service