A FINANCIAL “abyss” could face a council in a few years’ time if measures are not taken to plan for it, councillors have warned.

Darlington Borough Council’s budget could have a £9m funding gap in a few years’ time, a meeting heard.

A council report said planning beyond a four-year financial plan was very difficult because of uncertainty over local government funding and the impacts of Brexit and Covid.

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It says: “Current planning suggests there will be a budget deficit of approximately £9.9m, however... this will almost certainly change.

“At this stage it is not possible to know whether this will be a positive or negative position.”

Councillor Stephen Harker raised concerns at a meeting of the council’s economy and resources scrutiny committee, saying: “Clearly the budget is a balanced budget, but over the four years it’s using our usable reserves quite substantially.

“Clearly it’s okay for this coming year. But that budget going forward, it is unsustainable as it stands because clearly in the fifth year we have no further balances to call upon.

“If we have to make changes to the local authority in terms of its spend to basically reduce by £9m, that isn’t something that you can do quickly.

“If we have to take a hit of £9m to redress the use of balances, that will be quite a substantial job to do and it isn’t something which we’ll be able to do in a hurry.

“I think I’m not convinced that we can do sufficient to bridge a gap of £9m, which is where it’s sitting at the end of the day. I appreciate it’s four years away, things may change, but that’s quite a substantial gap.

“I am sceptical about the extent to which government might resolve the problem. We’ve been having this discussion since 2010 since the cuts started and in all that time it has largely fallen on deaf ears.

“I’m not convinced that government’s going to come in on a white horse and save the situation. We may need to do things ourselves to fix it. We can’t just sit here twiddling our thumbs hoping government will save the day.

“If government isn’t forthcoming or it takes too long before we have to make a huge round of further cuts, we do need to start thinking about what we might do.

“Even if we end up not having to do it, it’s better to plan for it and have some sense of how we may manage it if we really need to do it.”

Cllr Chris McEwan said: “If the suggestion is that there is a potential abyss heading our way, those that fail to plan, plan to fail.

The Northern Echo: Chris McEwanChris McEwan

“We need to have our mind or our eye on this and start some form of scenario planning.”

Committee chairman Cllr Mike Renton said: “I do hope our knight in shining armour does come along from the government one day, because otherwise we may be in a bit of a mess.”

He said council tax rises – like the hike of almost three per cent proposed for Darlington next year – were not popular and needed to be explained properly to the public.

The Northern Echo: Mike RentonMike Renton

He added: “I think it’s the struggling middle who get no support from anywhere who are going to be hit hardest by all these rises.”

Cllr Harker said people “getting less and paying more” struggling with costs like “astronomically” soaring fuel bills would be sceptical.

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