Councillors have been warned not to become the "fall guys" over savings needed to plug a £30m hole in finances.

Efforts to invite ideas on how to save millions of pounds were met with enthusiasm from councillors who see a "fantastic opportunity", but concern from others that it could be a "fudge" by council leaders.

Durham County Council needs to save almost £30m in the next few years, and this could rise significantly, a council meeting heard.

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Jeff Garfoot, head of corporate finance in commercial services, said: "We thought we'd be about £16m short next year.

"We're always looking at opportunities for savings, efficiencies, the way we can balance budgets.

"An awful lot has changed since the last time we set the budget.

"The current forecasts on savings, which will be reported to cabinet in July, are increasing significantly.

"Quite naturally, we're looking at savings options for next year... trying to identify areas where we can become efficient and generate more income."

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He said they were heavily lobbying central government for more money: "We need more funding. The problem is (1) we have no guarantees; (2) it'll likely be December before we find out if we're going to get extra funding.

"So we have to plan for the worst and hope for the best."

He said the council's scrutiny committees would look at options for extra income or savings in limited areas.

Councillor Craig Martin, chairing a corporate scrutiny board meeting, said he had been pushing for non-cabinet councillors to have more of a say in this.

He said: "I'm really excited about what we're going to do here."

The Northern Echo: Cllr Craig Martin. Picture: Durham County Council.Cllr Craig Martin. Picture: Durham County Council.

However Cllr Rob Crute said: "Effectively what could happen is we're going to be identified as the people saying we want cuts here, there and everywhere.

"If... scrutiny is now going to be identifying areas for cuts, I wouldn't be touching that with a bargepole."

Mr Garfoot said this was not about cuts but savings and efficiencies.

He said: "Scrutiny will not be looking at cuts.

"This is simply looking at chances for us to be more efficient and raise extra income to protect services."

Cllr Crute replied: "This is seen as cuts. This is down to austerity and it's down to cuts.

"We've got to be very careful... that we're not drawn into this.

"For years the cabinet has always made those decisions."

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

Cllr Carl Marshall said: "Anyone who thinks we're not going to get £30m worth of efficiencies and income generation over the next four years without cutting services needs a reality check.

"My big concern... is that this is a big fudge by a coalition that is not capable of running the council.

"This is sort of devoiding themselves of any accountability for making decisions and blaming somebody else.

"We need to be very careful that as scrutiny we don't become the fall guys for a council that's going to really struggle to deal with at least £30m worth of cuts."

The Northern Echo: Cllr Carl Marshall. Picture: Northern Echo.Cllr Carl Marshall. Picture: Northern Echo.

Cllr Kevin Shaw said it was trying to "pass the buck" for cabinet to have "squeaky clean hands".

He said: "I've got massive reservations about this. In fact I can't possibly support it.

"We're not here to act as a de facto cabinet. The administration's made its bed. Now it's got to lie in it."

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Cllr Olwyn Gunn said she felt confused, suspicious and uncomfortable: "It is about cuts. Efficiency savings, cuts. That's what the public think it is. That's what it actually is."

On the other hand, Cllr Patricia Jopling said it was inclusive: "I didn't see this as making cuts. We need to be looking at waste, not cutting services.

"This is not a diktat. I see this as being more open, which is something we've never had."

The Northern Echo: Cllr Patricia Jopling. Picture: Durham County Council.Cllr Patricia Jopling. Picture: Durham County Council.

Cllr Andrew Jackson said: "I'd rather see it from a very constructive rather than a negative point of view.

"It's inviting councillors to have more input, more say and make sure those ideas are fed back to cabinet."

Cllr Michael Stead spoke of opportunities to lobby government or find investment, and urged ambition in making income.

Cllr Bev Coult said: "I actually see it as a positive thing. There are massive benefits, potentially."

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Cllr Bill Moist said: "We're not looking for cuts at all. Efficiencies are everywhere.

"This has no fears for me. We're not going to tell cabinet what to do. We can't. We can make suggestions.

"I think it's a fantastic opportunity."

The board voted for committees to invite cabinet members to future meetings.

They also voted unanimously to note the committees' role in developing savings or income options to meet the £30m shortfall.


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