A TOTAL council tax increase of 3% has been approved by councillors - rejecting opposition calls to scrap it.

Labour councillors urged leaders to go back to the drawing board with their 2022-3 budget and give residents "a helping hand when they need it most".

The Durham County Council joint administration's leaders said their first budget was affordable, prudent and ambitious with millions of pounds going into frontline services "from rat control to roads", school building and levelling up projects.

Read more: Durham County Council budget hailed by leaders as 'the envy of councils'

Council leaders said the rise - put forward as a 3% rise in the adult social care precept with no increase in core council tax - was "justified and needed" to meet heavy pressures on social care and support the vulnerable.

Councillor Rob Crute, deputy Labour group leader and shadow cabinet member for finance, said a 3% council tax hike was "completely unacceptable".

He told the council meeting on Wednesday (February 23): "We acknowledge that in normal times, council tax rises are almost inevitable.

"These are not normal times.

"The coalition can step in and help our residents when our central Government has shamefully failed to do so.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Rob Crute. Picture: Northern Echo.Cllr Rob Crute. Picture: Northern Echo.

"We can't support this budget in its current form. Our residents deserve better.

"The cost of living crisis is putting almost unbearable pressure on households across County Durham.

"Exceptional times require exceptional measures.

"We're asking the coalition to recognise the financial hardship our residents are in, scrap their council tax proposals for this year and come back with a better offer."

He said new councillors were elected on promises to reduce council tax: "Well now's your time.

"It's time to choose which side you're on."

He and other Labour councillors cited financial crisis, soaring fuel and energy costs, a forthcoming National Insurance rise and "rampant inflation" already hitting residents.

Labour leader Cllr Carl Marshall said: "We should be focusing on the cause of poverty and trying to alleviate it and not exacerbate it.

"It's a travesty. We can play our small part in trying to support our communities.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Carl Marshall. Picture: Northern Echo.Cllr Carl Marshall. Picture: Northern Echo. (Image: Northern Echo, Newsquest)

"You're putting the pressure on to hard-working people. People can't afford it. They'll see through it when the council tax bills hit their doormats in a few weeks' time.

"You need to go away and think again. Support our communities when they need it most."

Cllr Angela Surtees said: "The cost of living crisis will affect all families in County Durham, sending our communities further into destitution and putting more pressures on support services."

She said she could not support the budget as it "does nothing to support the unique and uncertain times".

Read more: What County Durham residents can expect to get from 3% rise in council tax

Cllr Lucy Hovvels said: "I believe this proposed budget puts a big sticky plaster on social care.

"Increasing council tax to pay for social care is a double whammy for our hard-pressed residents.

"Many will find the 3% on council tax a double burden and will struggle to find that extra money in their pockets."

Cllr Olwyn Gunn said: "A 3% increase in council tax, by the time it filters down to pennies in the purse, can mean the difference between a child having breakfast before school or going to school hungry.

"This Government and this budget are not levelling up for County Durham children."

Cllr Peter Atkinson said: "Could I appeal to everybody, show compassion, come up with something that's affordable."

Council leader Cllr Amanda Hopgood said the Conservative-Lib Dem-Independent coalition's budget was "delivering on its commitment to raise the bar".

She outlined a capital programme of £113m including leisure centres, a new primary school in Spennymoor and a rebuild at Belmont Community School and £22m on roads.

Other investments included £9.9m on children's social care, £4.4m on waste disposal, £2.6m on home to school transport, and more for bins, wardens, street cleaning, pest control, parks, countryside, decarbonisation, nature reserves and allotments and levelling up.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Amanda Hopgood. Picture: Northern Echo.Cllr Amanda Hopgood. Picture: Northern Echo. (Image: Sarah Caldecott, Newsquest)

Cllr Hopgood added: "Not increasing council tax at all is not a sustainable or prudent strategy to adopt and we must carefully manage the council's financial resources."

She hit back at Labour, saying: "What I see here today is a lack of ideas, a lack of ambition and a lack of amendments.

"Here's a hashtag for your social media - #lacklustrelabour, because that's what you are."

Cllr Richard Bell, deputy council leader and cabinet member for finance, said: "We've avoided the temptation to increase council tax by the maximum 5% permissible, as the Government expects us to do.

"We know that people are feeling the squeeze from their incomes.

"Our local council tax reduction scheme - probably the most generous in the country - means that 21,000 pensioners pay nothing, as do 27,500 working age claimants."

The Northern Echo: Cllr Richard Bell. Picture: Sarah Caldecott.Cllr Richard Bell. Picture: Sarah Caldecott. (Image: Sarah Caldecott, Newsquest)

Independent Cllr Alan Shield told Labour councillors: "You complain, you criticise, you confront and you condemn.

"This budget is comprehensive in content, it's coherent in clarity, it's challenging in its range, it's compelling in its vision."

Liberal Democrat Cllr Mark Wilkes said: "Despite the fact we're investing for the first time in a decade in frontline services, Labour are voting against this budget without a single alternative suggestion.

"I fully support this first non-Labour budget for a century.

"Nothing has been offered by Labour than a black hole."

Independent Cllr Paul Sexton said: "Social care needs funding.

"We're not in a crisis but we're borderline right across the country. The 3% allows us to plan ahead in the next year."

Councillors approved the council tax, medium term financial plan and budget proposals with votes of 64 to 47.