County’s U-turn over services

COUNTY council chiefs have been forced to make a U-turn over plans to impose valued community services on town and parish councils, following a massive backlash.

Widespread anger had erupted after Northumberland County Council’s Lib Dem administration recently sent letters to all grassroots councils in December and this month setting out the services provided in their areas and the costs they would incur.

Members were warned that unless they agreed to take over a range of duties from April this year, there was a realistic prospect that services – such as bus shelters, cemeteries, playgrounds and public toilets – would be reduced or even axed completely.

County council chiefs were accused of ‘blackmail’ amid concerns that residents would face a hike in council tax bills as parishes would be forced to increase their precepts – some by four times as much – to save services under threat.

They were told that the cost of adopting these would need to be built into their 2011/12 precept.

But at the county council’s Area Committee North meeting on Monday night, they were told that this was no longer the case and the status quo would be maintained for the coming financial year.

Apologies were also made for the letters which were sent out and subsequently withdrawn.

This was met with relief with David Lockie, of Ford Parish Council, who said: “I am delighted to see the back-pedalling tonight. If there was an Olympic sport for back-pedalling, we would have a team here.”

After the meeting, Jeff Reid, leader of the cash-strapped county council – which has to make £111million-worth of cuts over the next four years, including £45million in the 2011/12 budget – wrote an amended letter to parish and town councils.

In the letter, titled ‘Provision of Local Services and the 2011/12 Budget, Coun Reid said, in setting this year’s budget, he was pleased to announce that the county council would not be considering proposals to reduce or stop delivering any of the local services listed within the recent letters.

Coun Reid also said that the county council would enter into proper conversation with parish and town councils over the next six or seven months to understand the local picture, costings and implications for each area, to give a more realistic time-frame to work together.

The precept deadline has also been extended from this Monday to Friday, February 11.

Speaking after the meeting, Coun Steven Bridgett, ward member for Rothbury and Coquetdale, said: “It is a complete U-turn. They tried to implement a policy that was not thought out and when they realised how much anger there was, they were forced to make a U-turn.”

But while this breakthrough was welcomed by grassroots councils, angry town and parish councillors still vented their anger at County Hall leaders during the meeting, criticising them for causing genuine alarm among town and parish councils, and attacked them for grave inaccuracies over the costings and details of local services in each area.

Coun Reid admitted that the costs letter was ‘too generic’ but defended it by saying that it was a response to grassroots councils who had asked how much services cost.

“They (the costings) were not nailed down to the penny. We have got 150-odd parish councils. Trying to individualise those letters would have been a nightmare. But I acknowledge the mistake,” he said.

Amble councillor Robert Arckless described the situation as a ‘debacle’ and added: “I think this was down to two things: Pressure on officers at County Hall and the fact that we have lost experienced officers who knew the system and worked with the parish and town councils and understood them. Hopefully, we can get the process right for the following year.”

Alnwick councillor Gordon Castle said grassroots councils should be proactive.

He said: “Alnwick Town Council wants to take on more responsibility and it wants to be more proactive. I hope the parishes do not take a passive role here and they do not sit and wait.”