Political leaders have clashed over a £52m gap in finances which the opposition claims could ruin the council.

Durham County Council is consulting the public on £17.5m of proposed savings in the hope of closing the huge funding gap.

Labour says the council will be "bankrupt in two years" - but the ruling joint administration has rejected its criticisms as incoherent "political posturing", with Liberal Democrat cabinet member Councillor Mark Wilkes hitting out at Labour for "unconscionable" wasteful spending when in power.

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

Cllr Rob Crute, County Durham's deputy Labour leader, said: "The blame for Durham County Council’s horrendous financial plight lies squarely at their door.

"Don’t let them tell you it’s because of historic mismanagement or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

"It is purely down to this coalition’s regressive policies and repeated mis-management of this local authority over the past 18 months."

He said the council's budget deficit "could have been significantly reduced had coalition councillors not dithered over and delayed vital decisions on projects across our county".

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

He added: "These councillors were more interested in political grandstanding – halting capital projects for a series of 'reviews', instead of recognising the importance of getting spades in the ground and delivering for residents and communities.

"What is happening in County Durham is a reflection of what is happening in Government – this country has been driven to the brink by Tory ideology that instigated austerity, botched Brexit, mishandled the pandemic and caused chaos across financial markets with the latest Chancellor’s madcap mini-budget."

County Durham Labour leader Cllr Carl Marshall, said: "On the council’s current trajectory, it will be bankrupt in two years. That is the stark reality County Durham faces.

"For generations, Labour has been a proud and prudent custodian of the county’s finances, and I can’t put into words how furious and frustrating it is to watch this chaotic coalition undo all that hard work and budgeting in the space of just 18 months.

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

"Their 'review' of the county’s capital projects has caused delays that have seen some project costs increase by as much as 35%, and now it looks like the £80m programme of upgrades and refurbishments to our ailing leisure centres may be the first major casualty of this Coalition’s money-saving measures.

"Time and time again, this regressive collective of councillors holding the reins in County Durham has proved it is not up to the job.

"I urge it to step aside and let Labour clean up its mess and get County Durham back on track, before it’s too late.”

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

In response, deputy council leader Cllr Richard Bell said: “This latest incoherent attack from Labour would be laughable if the financial situation were not so serious."

Cllr Bell, County Durham Conservative group leader and finance cabinet member, said: "Cllrs Marshall and Crute appear to be unable to understand how council budgets work, which is worrying for people who would seek to run the organisation.

"The numbers are what the numbers are - we are subject to the same inflationary pressures as everybody else, with soaring energy costs, home to school transport costs, and increases in demand for expensive services like children’s social care, all statutory services that we have to provide.

"All North East councils are facing these pressures, including pay rises at twice what we planned. These rises in costs are not due to choices made by the council.

Read more: Nappies and dog poo thrown into Durham recycling bins

“Where we have made choices, we have saved money. For example, we put right costly mistakes that were made by Labour, particularly in relation to the intended HQ building at The Sands, an expensive, unpopular vanity project that was set to burden taxpayers for decades.

"Ironically, it was the previous administration’s incompetence in dealing with land issues that delayed that scheme and allowed us the time to sort out the mess.

"Lacklustre Labour’s slipshod approach to capital projects is a legacy that we are having to deal with across the county.

"If Labour councillors were really so interested in the details of the budget, rather than this political posturing, then they would have put forward an alternative this year, or attended cabinet meetings to ask questions.

“Our commitment to the economy of County Durham is unquestionable, with an expansion to NETPark approved under the joint administration, and the Inclusive Economic Strategy in preparation. Can you believe that despite over 100 years in power in Durham, Labour didn’t have an economic strategy?”

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