OPPOSITION party leaders have claimed Darlington Borough Council’s Tory leaders are painting an overly rosy picture of the authority’s finances after setting their first budget since taking control of the council for the first time in decades.

The Labour group’s Councillor Stephen Harker and Councillor Matthew Snedker, of the Green Party, said while council leader Councillor Heather had stated austerity had ended, services provided by the council remained a shadow of what they had been a decade ago.

Cllr Harker, who led the authority before May’s local elections, said it was “plainly untrue” to announce the end of austerity.

He said: “The current budget is balanced, but only by significant use of reserves. Unless the Tory Government decides to increase funding, the Tory council will have to make further cuts to council services. All councils still face a bleak future, with vulnerable residents in particular suffering as a consequence.”

The Northern Echo:

He said it was important to remember that since 2010, due to Tory Government funding cuts, many council services had to be cut and the remaining services are running “at a bare minimum”.

Cllr Harker said: “Austerity won’t be over until levels of services and staffing return to what they were in 2010. And that’s what residents want to see – properly funded services. They don’t want the current bare minimum to be the new norm. “As with the NHS, schools, and Police and Fire Services residents value public sector services – they want to see real investment in these services.

“Boris claims he is going to invest – but for all his talk, what has so far been promised doesn’t even undo all the damage started by the Cameron/Clegg coalition government of 2010.

“The council budget report itself states ‘it is not without risk and challenges’ – what an understatement. Future government funding of councils is still very uncertain. The local Tories, always critical of high council tax increases are themselves proposing a four per cent increase. That speaks volumes. It’s well understood.”

He said unless the government chooses to increase council funding, Darlington’s authority will still only be able to afford basic levels of service to residents and it was more likely, further cuts will have to be made.

Cllr Harker said: “Darlington council can now barely afford to provide for the legal minimum it must provide. Any further cuts imposed by Government would be catastrophic.”

Councillor Matthew Snedker, leader of the council’s Green Party group, welcomed the council’s return to financial stability, but raised concerns that it had only been achieved after receiving one-off blocks of funding for certain issues. He said there needed to be more clarity over future funding.

The Northern Echo:

Cllr Snedker said: “We are now seeing some small increases in funding, but these tend to be in blocks that are for specific things, rather than being provided with a regular and steady supply that would enable the council to plan ahead and decide what it is spent on.

“This year the council had to apply for funding for summer holiday clubs to feed children who receive free school meals, and when Darlington was not selected for the funding the council had to scale back its schemes.

“Our authority’s ability to look after the most vulnerable in society was curtailed, not due to lack of will or ambition, but because we didn’t have the resources.”

Cllr Snedker said while the authority’s workers and scope had been drastically reduced by austerity, there remained a strong public expectation that the council should be responsible for a wider range of issues.

He said: “During the last ten years the council’s Conservative group seemed to be putting forward the opinion the cuts by the previous administration were a choice that they had made. They appeared to be claiming there was no such thing as austerity and that central government should not be blamed.”