THE leader of the North-East’s biggest council has ramped up his war of words with the Government, claiming in future the public services available will depend on the wealth of the area in which you live.
Durham County Council Labour leader Simon Henig said whereas until now a national quality standard has been maintained, in future, local government services will reflect the prosperity of the local area – meaning many in the North-East will fall further and further behind richer southern shires.
And, turning the screw on Conservative ministers, he told a cabinet meeting at County Hall: “This is a massive change in public policy. And I think some ministers don’t understand what they’ve done.”
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Councillor Henig was speaking as his cabinet debated plans to cut another £23m from its spending in 2014-15, taking its total savings since 2010 to £155m, a total set to rise to £242m by 2017.
Pointing to figures showing while Durham will lose 6.3 per cent of its spending power over the next two years wealthy Surrey will actually gain three per cent, he said: “If we’re all in this together, we should genuinely be all in this together and those figures should be the same.”
He said measures to equalise local authority spending power, taking into account council tax income and local needs, were being eroded for the first time since they were introduced by Tory heavyweight Michael Heseltine in the early 1990s and ministers’ claims the difference could be made up through business rates were “fantasy”.
Coun Henig was part of a North-East delegation which went to London to lobby local government minister Brandon Lewis on the perceived unfairness last week.
But deputy leader Alan Napier said: “We’ve been banging at the door, but it appears there’s no-one in, or no-one’s listening.”
Much of this year’s savings at Durham are set to come from back-office and staffing cuts. But Coun Henig said budgets were going to get harder and harder and frontline services would be at risk from next year.
Liberal Democrat councillor Mark Wilkes claimed Labour was hiding millions of pounds in future income to exaggerate the severity of the cuts needed and denying opposition members the opportunity to debate the figures.
The council will set its budget on Wednesday, February 26.