LEADERS of a local authority set to levy the second lowest council tax in the North-East have raised concerns public services could still be declining in the mid-2030s.

Ahead of Darlington Borough Council’s cabinet recommending increasing council tax by 2.99 per cent for the coming year, leader Councillor Stephen Harker said Brexit-related economic turmoil could hit the pockets of residents and the authority in the long-term.

After the meeting heard suggestions that it could be 15 years before councils in the North-East recover from Brexit, Cllr Harker said: “I frankly don’t think it will be until much much longer than that. I think we face many years of decline to public services.”

He said while 58 per cent of the council’s funding was generated through council tax – in the North-East only Sunderland has a lower rate then Darlington – and the bulk of the remainder came from business rates.

Cllr Harker said: “If we see our economy decline drastically, we will see a major part of our funding fall away and the burden that will onto residents will only increase. The only alternative would be a further slashing to services.

“Bearing in mind this local authority, as with many other local authorities, are at a point where they can barely afford statutory services I fail to see how we can significantly reduce our expenditure any further, but we must as we face a funding gap of around £5m at the end of the four-year plan.”

Opposition councillors issued warnings that there was an overwhelming amount of doubts enveloping the authority’s financial plans.

Tory councillor Charles Johnson said: “The Conservative group is saying what we are really looking is one achievable budget and three forecast budgets which will be particularly subject to external pressure, such as Brexit. Under these circumstances we are concerned and we think it would be wrong to support the recommendations without it being made clear budgets for years two, three and four are based on best current estimates.”

Independent councillor Alan Coultas added: “This plan faces massive risk and against this we have to question whether impacted by chaotic government the risk contingencies have been set high enough.”

The authority’s Labour leadership said the council regularly reconsidered and reviewed its financial plans and Brexit was just one of a number of macro-economic factors that would affect Darlington’s economy.

Cllr Harker said it remained financially prudent for the council to plan its finances four years in advance, but the plan flagged up risks facing the council.

Replying to Cllr Johnson, he said: “I don’t really understand what you suggest we do. Just present a single year’s budget and keep our fingers crossed? This is a good attempt given what we do know and the uncertainty we are aware of, in producing a plan for four years.

“In the budget in the autumn, your Government said austerity was over. I think that was appalling thing to say. It gave people particularly in the North-East a lot of false hope. Austerity is not over. We are still facing funding cuts and will do at the end of this four-year financial plan. It will be many years before we can get back to the levels of provision protecting vulnerable people as we were in 2010.”

Councillor Nick Wallis added: “None of us have a crystal ball. At the time this was drafted and where we sit here today this is the best guess we can make.”