Durham County Council to discuss £15m overspending

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A political row over major cuts to council funding has erupted after a North East local authority emerged expecting to end the financial year with £15million in the red.

The Joint Administration of Durham County Council has revealed there is likely to be a ‘significant’ budget overrun in April and is asking the government for more money to close the gap.

Council finance chief Richard Bell blames the recent rapid rise in inflation which has seen fuel prices soar and the county’s gas and electricity bills fall from £7m a year to £21million.

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But opposition advisers point out that the authority, which is led by Tories, Liberal Democrats and Independents, would be better placed to weather the economic storm if Tory austerity measures since 2010 had not taken a toll nearly a quarter of a billion pounds in council coffers.

Councilors are due to debate the issue at County Hall on Wednesday morning.

Carl Marshall, Durham County Councilor

Cllr Carl Marshall, County Leader of Durham Labour, said: ‘Just over a year after taking over County Council, Cllr Bell bemoans the lack of funding from his Tory Government…the same Tory Government which has stripped almost a quarter of a billion pounds from our county during 12 years in power.

“His party snickered as Labor spent a decade campaigning for a fair deal for Durham, while austerity stifled vital services, but now Cllr Bell is talking about ‘significant challenges’ caused by inflation, at a time when his party effectively shut down the government to stage a long leadership race.

“The coalition has refused to back Labor calls for more government funding, keeping the UC rise and freezing council tax.

“And it could save around £1million a year in energy costs immediately just by moving into the modern purpose-built HQ which sat empty for nine months as they tried to whip it.”

Cllr Rob Crute, Deputy Leader of County Durham Labour, said he did not believe the Joint Administration or the current Conservative Government could take the immediate and decisive action currently required in the circumstances.

He said: “The Tories have spent a generation tearing Britain apart and this Tory-led coalition risks breaking up County Durham in its first 18 months.

“Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to the multitude of crises facing families in County Durham, but the Coalition’s apology over delays in government consultation on a two-year funding settlement does not will not be washed.

“This coalition must draw in the Conservative MPs from Durham and together demand immediate action from the government.”

The Northern Echo: Tory MPs Richard Holden, Dehenna Davison and Paul Howell Conservative MPs Richard Holden, Dehenna Davison and Paul Howell

County Tory MPs Dehenna Davison, Richard Holden and Paul Howell were contacted for comment by the Northern Echo but did not respond.

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North Durham Labor MP Kevan Jones said: “If the council is in this position, it needs to publish and explain some of its financially illiterate decisions, such as the sale of the new purpose-built headquarters building.

“Since 2010 I have campaigned to highlight the impact of Tory and Liberal Democrat austerity on local councils.

“It’s hard to put up with Tory councilors complaining about a £15m overrun when successive Tory governments have taken over £240m a year from Durham County Council.”

Echo of the North: Mark Kelly Foy, MP for Durham City Mark Kelly Foy, MP for Durham City

Durham City Labor MP Mary Kelly Foy said the overrun was “extremely concerning”.

She said: ‘More than a decade of Conservative cuts to local government budgets have already significantly reduced the council’s ability to cope with additional pressures and this year, with the added impact of inflation, the councils need more support from the national government.

“Make no mistake about it, the services provided by the councils are absolutely essential for a large number of people across the country, and I am desperately worried about what this overrun will mean for those who depend on these frontline services and for council staff who will come. under increasing pressure to deliver even more, for even less.

“It absolutely shows what Tories think about County Durham.”

The board last week blamed its financial woes on the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, particularly on energy and fuel costs, as well as inflationary impacts on wages. and prices on external contracts such as waste disposal services and home-to-school transport.

Echo of the North: Councilor Richard BellCouncilor Richard Bell

Conservative Councilor Richard Bell, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Finance, said: “Essentially we are facing the same cost of living issues as the public, with our energy costs and rising supplier prices.

“Our combined gas and electricity bills are climbing from £7m a year to £21m.

“Road repairs are impacted by the cost of oil and gas and cost much more.

“We are also experiencing the impact of inflation on the salaries of our staff.

“The council is saving money where it can, for example by selling the Sands building to the university.

“We are always striving to look for efficiency savings, but these will not be enough to close the gap.

“The council has a strong grip on its budget and a clear vision for the future, but we need more support from central government, and I have already written to the new Prime Minister and Secretary of State.

‘The new Prime Minister has moved quickly to tackle energy costs for families and businesses, and a good start would be to offer councils help with their soaring bills.’

At a meeting in July, budgetary concerns were flagged to the cabinet of the council, in a report which predicted that these pressures were contributing to the need for savings of £55million over the next four years, of which around £22m is set to drop. in 2023/24.

A spokesperson for the Department of Upgrading, Housing and Communities said:

“In recognition of the role they play, we have made an additional £3.7 billion available to councils this year to ensure they are able to deliver on local priorities and key public services.

“For Durham County Council, we have made £503m available for this financial year to provide services.

“We are prepared to speak to the council if they have any concerns.”

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