A leading councillor has pledged to "root out waste" as a £52m cash gap starts to bite budgets.

Councillor Mark Wilkes, a Liberal Democrat member of Durham County Council's cabinet, criticised the Government for not telling councils whether it would help with escalating costs.

He also slammed the previous Labour council administration for "unconscionable" spending.

Read more: Durham Council consults on 'staggering £75m cost pressures'

The council's latest cabinet meeting heard it needed to make £52m savings in the next four years, including £37.4m in the next financial year 2023 to 2024, amid "unavoidable" inflationary cost pressures.

The joint administration is consulting the public on proposals to save £17.5m to close the gap, and might need to use another £25.5m in reserves.

Cllr Wilkes, cabinet member for neighbourhoods and climate change, said every council in the country was sending a message to the Government: "Budget pressures are such that we're having to fund cuts which are unsustainable.

"Local government needs an increase in revenue of over £3.7bn. This Government has just bailed out the country to the tune of £89bn for energy bills or thereabouts. That includes subsidising the energy bills of billionaires and millionaires.

"But it can't tell us if we're getting a penny towards the massive costs and pressures that we're facing.

The Northern Echo: Cllr Mark Wilkes. Picture: Sarah Caldecott.Cllr Mark Wilkes. Picture: Sarah Caldecott. (Image: Sarah Caldecott, Newsquest)

"So we as a local authority are having to look at making savings which may end up not being necessary.

"We shouldn't be put in this position."

He said he had "hammered" the previous Labour council administration for wasteful practices.

He detailed "officers having three mobile phone contracts and not even knowing it, or officers having retired and contracts still running, the then Labour-run local authority buying 17,000 packs of Post-It notes a year including branded, multi-coloured and scented ones... the Labour chair and vice chair getting over £12,000 a year in clothing allowances".

Read more: RECAP - Durham County Councillors to discuss £52m financial black hole

"I thought we'd seen the back of all the waste and all the failures over the last decade," he added.

"What we're finding is systematic failure by Labour to look after the public's money, failure to use assets properly, a failure to raise the right levels of income and more.

"We're facing energy bills of over £21m this year and I'm determined to find savings to this cost.

"What I didn't expect was to find that some of the practices we're inherited from Labour have been unconscionable.

"So our commitment continues, to run this local authority for the people of this county and to continue to root out waste left by Labour, and we're cracking on with it, whilst also making some excellent improvements across a wide range of services from waste to highways, children's services to wardens, social care to leisure."

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He thanked council officers for doing "an amazing job in difficult circumstances across all departments".

He said: "It takes a long time to change the way things are done.

"It's not easy when the Government's doing what it's doing.

"But I'm finding that we're moving more and more towards being a can-do council, unlike under Labour where frequently it was 'Labour says no, council says no'.

"So we get on with the job, while challenging Government to provide the revenue funding we need to continue to provide quality local public services."

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