THE North-East's biggest local authority agreed to raise council tax for the first time since 2010 as it attempts to deal with ‘unfair’ austerity cuts.
Cabinet members at Durham County Council approved a 1.99 per cent rise when they met in Spennymoor today (Wednesday, February 12).
The increase was part of the council’s budget for 2014-15 and three year financial plan, which goes to full council later this month.
Members heard that, by the end of this financial year, the authority will have made £113.9m of savings since 2011 but a further £110.1m is needed over the next three years, with £23m of those cuts required in the year ahead.
Cuts have already been made to leisure centres, library opening hours, home-to-school transport and care homes - of which more could yet close.
But Don McLure, the council’s director of resources, said: “The budget continues to protect frontline services where possible and was able to fund some investment.”
It allows for more than £263m of capital investment including highways, redevelopment of Durham bus station and regeneration projects in Bishop Auckland, Peterlee, Seaham, Crook and Spennymoor.
There will be a £1.3m increase in the winter maintenance budget and people on benefits will be protected with the extension of two local council tax schemes.
Deputy leader, Coun Alan Napier, said in consultation about two thirds of the public said a council tax rise was fair and would rather that than see services reduced.
He slammed the Government’s decision to scrap equalisation, which tops up council funds based on local needs and the amount of tax it can generate.
He said: “They are prohibiting us from delivering the standard of services County Durham justifiably deserves.
“As a council we should continue to bang on the door of Government, the principles of equalization and fairness are being eroded.”
Cuoncil leader, Simon Henig reiterated the feeling of unfairness felt by the 12 North-East councils which will see spending power fall 7.5 per cent over the next two financial years, compared to a national average of 4.7 per cent. Some affluent areas such as Surrey will enjoy a rise.
He said: “It is clear that spending cuts could continue for several years to come, at the moment there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
“These cuts are not being fairly distributed.”
Since 2011, the authority has shed 1,520 jobs and by next March 1,950 posts will have been lost.
Coun Jane Brown said she was pleased £15m was available to support voluntary redundancy or early retirement for staff to reduce the need for compulsory redundancies.
Liberal Democrats had called for a council tax freeze and suggested axing the number of high paid directors from five to three and merging some departments to pay for it.
Coun Nigel Martin said: “Labour is acting irresponsibly and damaging the economic recovery by demanding more cash from hard pressed households.”