The local authority’s final budget for 2021-22 will be signed off at the full council meeting in February, but ahead of that, lead councillors are addressing all five of this month’s local area council (LAC) meetings.
At the Wednesday, January 13, meeting of the Ashington and Blyth LAC, Cllr Brian Gallacher raised concerns about the proposed savings for next year, totalling £8.3million, questioning how the leadership could claim budgets were increasing at the same time as cuts – with even heftier reductions earmarked for the following two years.
Cllr Nick Oliver, the cabinet member for corporate services, responded: “What we are trying to do is deliver more, deal with inflation and increasing demand, and deal with demographic change. We are trying to deliver more with just a bit more.
“The overall gross budget of the council is rising from £780million to £803million, that’s an increase of £23million, but within that, we’re delivering £8.3million of efficiencies.”
Cllr Gallacher hit back to say: “In two years’ time, three years’ time, this county will struggle because of poor budgeting.”
However, Cllr Oliver said: “I’m not so pessimistic. We will see some amazing things happen, a lot of the investment that’s being made in the county, a lot of the jobs coming through, we’ll see increased business rates, so I’m much more optimistic.
“There’s no doubt that the coming year will be tough, but going forward, I think we are as well set as most places to recover strongly and that has to be our focus, working together across all areas of the county to deliver some economic growth, bringing in more jobs.
“If we can do that, we will see some better times. It is tough, there’s no doubt, in every area of the country right now.”
He was challenged further by Cllr Lynne Grimshaw, who questioned the need for ‘such steep cuts’ given that the administration had said that it was getting a good deal from the Government.
Cllr Oliver replied: “There’s £8.3million in savings and we’ve tried to spread that, but overall the picture is one of £23million more being spent.
“The spending on frontline services is rising, we’ve got £10million in children’s services, £5million in adult services, so I think it’s important to paint a balanced picture.
“We will always try to drive efficiency, do things in more innovative ways and deliver better value services and higher quality services. That’s really what the savings are about – to do things differently and improve.”
In terms of the capital spending programme, several members raised concerns about not being kept in the loop about projects – potentially major ones – being lined up in their wards or towns.
As previously reported, the Government has confirmed that the referendum threshold for increases in council tax will remain at 2% next year, while authorities will also be able to charge an adult social care precept of up to 3%.
Northumberland ratepayers face a 2% general rise (1.99%), but the care precept will be split over two years ‘to try to soften the impact’, so the overall bill is set to increase by 3.75% next year and 3.25% in 2022-23.