COUNCIL chiefs have come out fighting amid claims that contracting out street lighting could cost millions and saddle taxpayers with huge debts for decades to come.

Liberal Democrat councillor Mark Wilkes said even setting up a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) to replace street lights could cost Durham County Council £4.7m in wages and consultants’ fees, as well as saddling residents with hundreds of millions of pounds of debt and pushing up council tax.

He said: “This could be a disaster for taxpayers in County Durham.”

However, Councillor Bob Young, the council’s cabinet member for strategic environment, said with a £100m Government grant, the scheme could benefit taxpayers by up to £70m.

He said: “Mark Wilkes will have to account for himself in ten, 15 or 20 years time when we’re using outdated engineering, haven’t embraced technology, haven’t reduced our carbon footprint and haven’t improved lighting for our residents. There are so many advantages to bringing this forward.”

Durham County Council and Stockton Borough Council have provisionally secured £125m of Government cash to set up the contract, which could see all street lights renewed over five years, tied to a 25-year maintenance contract.

Yesterday, Durham agreed to investigate whether the project makes financial sense.

The findings of a detailed study, which itself could cost £300,000, are expected in early autumn.

Independent councillor John Shuttleworth said: “PFI is ill thought-out and there are no benefits for local communities.

It will cost jobs.”

But Alan Napier, the council’s deputy leader, said it would be stupid not to explore the option.

Coun Young said: “It’s important we move with the times and offer our residents the best value for money and highest quality services we can.

“It’s no secret there are tough times ahead for councils everywhere and we must look at all options open to us as we seek to offer better services at less cost to our residents.”

Steve Keetley, the council’s head of technical services, said the bid was at a very early stage, but indications were that PFI offered best value for money. He said that securing the cash would allow the council to replace more than 90,000 street lights, signs and bollards.

The Durham and Stockton project is part of a £620m national scheme which involves seven councils.