Opposition groups on Northumberland County Council furious to learn about £17m financial black hole in local media

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The leaders of opposition groups on Northumberland County Council have said they were “kept in the dark” about the authority’s looming financial difficulties.

The local authority has confirmed it is facing a £17 million shortfall due to inflationary pressures and the soaring cost of fuel.

While £5 million was set aside in the last budget to deal with inflation, the council must still find around £12 million. In an email to staff, interim chief executive Rick O’Farrell revealed voluntary redundancy was being offered, with all staff able to apply.

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The issue was blamed on inflation and the rise in the cost of fuel as well as the war in Ukraine. However, the news came as a surprise to the leaders of the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Independent groups on the council.

Derek Kennedy, Scott Dickinson and Jeff Reid.Derek Kennedy, Scott Dickinson and Jeff Reid.
Derek Kennedy, Scott Dickinson and Jeff Reid.

All three said they were unaware of the issues until seeing the news in the media. It comes after all parties pledged to work closer together following the damning findings of the Max Caller report, which criticised the “winner takes all” approach of successive administrations at County Hall.

Coun Scott Dickinson, leader of Northumberland Labour, said: “I’m flabbergasted to learn that all staff have been asked to come forward for redundancy. I am equally shocked but not totally surprised to learn of a near-£18 million black hole.

Councillors from all opposition parties have discussed and were equally kept in the dark.

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“I do worry greatly about the so-called partnership working and cross-party working that recent reviewers of the council asked us to embark on. You’d think this type of thing would be shared with us, but unfortunately not, we have to learn from distraught staff.

Coun Dickinson’s words were echoed by Jeff Reid, Liberal Democrat leader and former leader of the council.

He said: “I was disappointed to have to read about it in the media, before we have been given the opportunity to be briefed about it.

“I don’t know what the plan is as I’ve not been included in any decision. It is just the usual Tory thing of saying one thing – we’re going to include you and talk more – and doing the exact opposite.”

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Independent leader Derek Kennedy feared the impact any redundancies could have on services.

He said: “As the leader of the independents, this has not been shared with us. Seeing it for the first time in the newspapers was a very big shock.

“It is disappointing that it was not shared with us. We have a county council that has high council tax, and it has been highlighted that we have over 20 staff on over £100,000 a year, and we have a lot of interims that we are paying significant amounts.”

Responding to the criticism, council leader Glen Sanderson insisted there was no financial crisis at the council.

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He added: “We have still got no real detail, but we are being affected by the same issues as everyone – wage inflation, fuel increases etcetera.

“We are in September and the budget is not done until February, so we are at a very early stage.

“Our finance officer has said we may need to find £17 million to cover inflation, fuel and pay. Inviting voluntary redundancy is common practice and I can assure you there is no financial crisis.”