THE North-East’s biggest council is being secretive and wrong-headed in refusing a Government grant worth more than £2m, a Tory leader has said.
Richard Bell, Conservative group leader at Durham County Council (DCC), is unhappy a Government offer of £2.04m in return for freezing council tax for 2014-15 was omitted from a budget paper approved by the authority’s Labour cabinet last week.
The cabinet heard the council faces cuts of £23m in 2014-15, taking its overall savings since 2010 to £155m – a total set to rise to £242m by 2017.
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But Councillor Bell said: “This cabinet paper makes some very important omissions.
“It fails to say that the Government is offering a council tax freeze grant worth one per cent or £2.04m to DCC.
“It fails to say that by not accepting this grant DCC is taking money from the pockets of council taxpayers instead.
“A two per cent council tax rise brings in £3.29m for DCC, only £1.25m more than for a zero per cent rise in council tax.”
Calling on Labour to accept the grant, the Barnard Castle West member said: “It is plain wrong-headed to charge local taxpayers £3.29m for a net benefit to the council of £1.25m and it is secretive and unacceptable that in the cabinet papers they have not admitted to making this choice.”
In response, Labour leader Simon Henig said the grant expects councils to foot part of the bill and these “extra cuts” would come on top of “massive cuts” in Government grant this year and next.
He added that during a budget consultation last autumn around two-thirds of residents favoured a small increase in council tax to reduce the severity of further cuts.
Coun Bell said residents had not been asked whether they wanted to refuse £2m in free money from the Government.
DCC’s element of council tax has been frozen for an unprecedented three years.
The Labour cabinet will agree its 2014-15 budget proposals on Wednesday, February 12, before a full council meeting finally sets the budget on Wednesday, February 26.
Don McLure, the council’s director of resources, said a budget paper going to the February 12 meeting would include a full explanation of the financial implications of the council tax freeze grant.