PLANNED council tax rises in County Durham have been defended by bosses, who insist they are still likely to be lower than in neighbouring areas.

County chiefs are due to vote next week on plans to increase household bills by almost three per cent from April.

But while many families may struggle with higher payments, the boost remains smaller than the five per cent rise the government has attempted to push local authorities into.

“The very clear steer we’re getting from the government is to increase council tax by 4.99 per cent and the Chancellor is assuming all councils will do that,” said Paul Darby, interim director of resources at Durham County Council.

“We’re not doing that because of the situation we’re in, both as a council with our own finances, but more importantly the communities of County Durham.

“We’re spreading the council tax rise over two years, whereas the majority of other councils will be taking the full 4.99 increase next year.”

Last year’s 2020 Government spending review claimed spending plans would see councils’ ‘core spending power’ rise by 4.5 per cent in 2021/22.

But this was based on local authorities taking advantage of the option to increase bills by the maximum 4.99 per cent allowed, a move described as ‘absurd’ by Labour leader Keir Starmer due to the impact it would have on family finances.

But ministers can also point to a £500 million hardship fund offering council tax discounts to families worst affected by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Simon Henig, the leader of the council, insisted the smaller rise had not been influenced May’s scheduled local elections.

He said: “We’re levying a council tax increase commensurate to what we’ve just been through.

“Because the council’s in a robust position, because of the way we’ve been able to manage our finances, that is the most appropriate level.

“Everybody’s got elections this year and everybody will reach their own decisions on council tax, but that’s appropriate in terms of where we are.

“We have very safe and sound finances in County Durham and if we don’t need to levy a 5 per cent increase, we’re not going to levy a 5 per cent increase, because we all understand how challenging these times are for households right across the county.”