A pledge for further investment in schools – in Amble and Berwick – was the rabbit out of the hat as Northumberland County Council’s budget was signed off yesterday.
Building on a £589million capital spending plan over the next three years, which includes £142million for schools, the authority’s Conservative administration has now promised £15million for a new high school in Berwick and a ‘multimillion-pound’ investment for Amble’s James Calvert Spence College, although business cases will need to be drawn up.
The spending is just one prong of the 2019-22 plan, with proposals for cutting £25million out of the required savings of £36million, including £12.8million in the coming year, also approved as well as a 3.99 per cent council-tax rise, one per cent of which is specifically for adult social care.
New schools for Hexham and the Seaton Valley had already been announced, alongside new leisure centres in Berwick and Morpeth plus investment in parks, car parking and a new council house-building programme.
But opening the debate at the full council meeting, ahead of the budget being passed by 38 votes to 22 with two abstentions, council leader Peter Jackson revealed the ‘absolute firm commitment’ of the additional proposals for Amble and Berwick.
However, Labour’s Coun Susan Dungworth was critical of these ‘last-minute’ additions and ‘gerrymandering’ through ‘investment being put into Conservative constituencies at the expense of the wider county’.
“This is a budget that asks people to pay for more and to get less, and is disproportionately unfair to those in our community who need our support the most,” she added.
Her party’s leader, Coun Grant Davey, described the budget as a ‘mess of the first order’, saying the Tories were ‘ignoring the deprived areas of this county’, before proposing four amendments.
Following advice, two of these – dropping the controversial cuts to council-tax support and changes to care charges – were abandoned, as the full council had already voted to support these last month and earlier in yesterday’s meeting respectively, while the other two – for a cross-party capital spending working group and moving money for major transport projects forward – were voted down.
Meanwhile, Lib Dem leader Jeff Reid said: “What I’m concerned about this year is this is more of a fudge-it than a budget because you haven’t addressed any of the underlying problems, but chosen to charge people more.”
He highlighted that more than one-third of the schedule of efficiencies is actually increased charges, rather than running services more efficiently.
However, Coun Nick Oliver, cabinet member for corporate services, said: “We are determined to address the fundamental issues and invest in transformative change.
“We won’t take a sticking-plaster approach, we’re investing in capacity across the county to provide vital social care, leisure facilities, parks and modern business infrastructure.
“This is a budget that deals with the serious challenges we face and offers increased prosperity for everybody in Northumberland.”
Prior to this, Coun Jackson had said: “We are absolutely determined to be forward-looking and not backward-looking anymore. We’re optimistic and ambitious for the whole of Northumberland and everyone in it.
“We are going to make the case for real investment in our county, to make sure our county has a great future.
“We are not talking about cuts, cuts, cuts, cuts, we’re actually talking about doing things better, the essential services that people need.
“Our budget is about prudent planning, our budget is about making essential services better, our budget is providing what our communities need, it’s tackling long-term issues neglected for years by Labour, it’s providing a better and more prosperous future for every single person in Northumberland. It’s about making our county great.”
Referring to proposals for a Blyth relief road and passenger rail services connecting south-east Northumberland to Newcastle, he added: “Transport investment is the real key to our long-term future and there are exciting developments and opportunities.”
Public consultation events for the relief road have been taking place this week, while Transport Secretary Chris Grayling indicated he was on board with the £190million rail project earlier this month, both of which are bidding for Government funding.
But, as Coun Dungworth pointed out, many of these types of projects were also backed and worked on by the previous Labour administration and she said it was ‘disingenuous’ and ‘below the belt’ for the leader to try to claim all the credit.
Responding, Coun Jackson said: “A lot of this is a cross-party programme, but we are actually making it happen and that’s what I’m saying is the difference.
“I know a lot of people will always be naysayers, a lot of people will say these are dreams, but we are actually starting to prove that we can deliver these projects and they’ll make a big difference right across Northumberland.”
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service