THOUSANDS of families will have their council tax bills frozen as a result of a proposed efficiency drive.

Darlington Borough Council plans to cut £4.7m from its budget – and last night promised to pass the savings on to tax payers.

However, the cuts have come at a cost with 77 jobs being lost.

Last night, officials challenged other councils, police and fire authorities to follow their lead after passing on savings to residents.

As part of its proposed budget, the authority has planned to make £4.7m-worth of service cuts, including the council posts.

Unions attacked the plans, accusing the ruling Labour group of making a political gesture that would threaten services.

There was a mixed reaction to the proposals from opposition groups.

Although Darlington is one of the first authorities in the region to publish its budget proposals, Durham County Council could also follow suit.

A report to the county council last November warned of £58.4m cuts over three years based on no rise in council tax.

One councillor also suggested councils across the Tees Valley were looking at similar proposals.

Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council’s cabinet group will this morning propose a 2.5 per cent rise, but other councils have yet to publicise figures.

Decisions on precept levels set by Durham’s police and fire authorities will also be made next month.

Darlington Borough Council circulated a cabinet report yesterday that sets out a draft budget for the 2010-11 financial year.

Council leader John Williams said the proposals included three headlines:

● A proposed freeze on the council tax for council services;
● Plans for more than £4.7m of service cuts;
● Other changes to services to save an additional £240,000.

The proposals would mean future council tax rises of one per cent in 2011-12 and two per cent for the following two years.

He said: “It is not just our budget that is tight. Most people are hurting. The last thing they want is to see a council tax rise.

“We have to make tough choices. The private sector has made this tough choice.

“We have got to make tough decisions. I think people will hugely appreciate not having to pay more council tax.”

Changes to services to make savings will be “across the board”.

It is also proposed that premium rate payments for overtime, Sundays and bank holidays and essential car use allowance should be removed.

Consultation, including with unions, has started on 59 potential redundancies and another 18 vacant posts to be unfilled, from its workforce of more than 4,000.

The proposals have been sent to opposition groups and residents.

Councillor Heather Scott, leader of the Conservative group in Darlington, called it “a reasonably good conservative budget”.

She said: “As I understand, other authorities within the Tees Valley will be looking at freezing council tax.

“We have to be aware of difficult times across the whole of the northern region.”

But Liberal Democrat councillor Martin Swainston said the budget was “too little, too late” and the consultation exercise would not alter any decisions.

He also accused the council of further dipping into its reserves.

Alan Docherty, Unison representative in Darlington, described the proposals as politicking ahead of this year’s General Election and next year’s council elections.

He said the proposals were also “putting essential services at risk” and that some proposals were effectively wage cuts to some staff.