The first Northumberland County Council budget by the Conservative administration which won power last May was passed tonight amid the usual political back and forth in the council chamber.
Relatively early in the debate, the Labour opposition attempted to reintroduce the second year of its four-year medium-term financial plan, which had been approved last February while still in power, through an amendment to the motion to accept the administration's budget. However, this was unsuccessful.
Therefore, after a lengthy debate, the Tories' budget was approved by 37 votes to 19, with five abstentions. It was preceded by plenty of blame in both directions - the Conservatives blaming the previous Labour administration for the council's current financial woes, with the latter blaming the new leadership for the decisions it had taken since May which had strayed from the previously-approved budget.
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 £588million.
Council and Conservative group leader, Coun Peter Jackson, said: "We're pleased to have agreed our budget which allows us to balance our books and do the right thing for the people we serve. But the hard work starts now. The next three years will be more challenging than ever and may have a impact on the way we deliver services.
"However, we’re bold and ambitious for the future and by approving this budget, we’ll be much better placed to help support a thriving local economy and deliver value for money for the communities we serve."
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.
Coun Jackson added: ”We’re still very much ambitious for our future and for the future for the people of Northumberland, and our capital programme of £588m is the biggest ever delivered in the county. Over the coming years, we pledge to continue investing in Northumberland's future and making sure we get a fair deal for the whole county - one that works for everyone."
In terms of spending, 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, £35.7million for a new programme of housing to rent and £21million for a loans fund to support start-up businesses.
From the £65.1million in total over the course of the 2018-22 medium-term financial plan, relatively modest reductions of £8.2million - in comparison to future years - are proposed for the coming financial year.
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.
However, the Labour opposition says that this £65million 'black-hole' is down to Tory decisions, for example, the decision not to move the council's headquarters to Ashington but to refurbish County Hall in Morpeth, while halting Labour’s savings plans, scrapping Arch and withdrawing the council's Core Strategy 'have further contributed to the dire economic picture'.
Labour also points to decisions to halt new leisure centres in Berwick, Blyth and Morpeth while pushing forward a plan to invest £57million in schools and leisure facilities in Ponteland. Schemes to regenerate Ashington, Bedlington, Blyth and Cramlington have already been delayed and this budget sees their funding slashed, it claims.
Coun Grant Davey, leader of the Labour group, said: "The Tories took power on a pledge to deliver for the whole of the county, sadly for residents outside of Ponteland, this is clearly not the case. Northumberland needs investment in infrastructure, schools, leisure and the economy, but this budget delivers only for a few at the expense of the many.
"On taking charge of the council, Peter Jackson said the previous CEO had left a 'strong and stable' organisation, now residents are being penalised by swingeing cuts from the Tories in Westminster and incompetence from Tories here in Northumberland."
The Lib Dem leader, Coun Jeff Reid, said he was pleased the leadership had gone out to the local area councils to present their budget and that it all adds up, but that he was disappointed with how the debate had focused on the past and the previous administration, not the future.
He also highlighted that many of the savings proposed in the schedule of efficiencies are reviews of different services or departments, saying: "You are not going to be able to deliver this and you are going to be dipping into reserves, moving the chairs around the deck of the Titanic, and come next year, you will have to find £14million or £15million rather than the £11million."