AN INCREASE in council tax for the Darlington borough was approved last night - despite an 11th hour challenge by Tories.

The 4.8 per cent rise was approved at a meeting of the borough council in the town hall.

It means taxpayers in a Band A property will have to pay an extra 57p per week in 2005/06.

Labour councillors pledged that they would continue to deliver the best possible deal for residents.

And they condemned the late challenge from the Conservative group, who put forward a proposal for a rise of 2.1 per cent.

Council leader John Williams said: "It will still be the fact that Darlington is the lowest council tax authority in the North-East region."

He was critical of the Tories, who told the meeting they questioned the affordability of Labour crusades, and said their lower council tax suggestions were "reckless in the extreme".

Coun Williams said: "What the Conservatives are proposing is a £6m black hole in our finances. You are just trying to play politics with Darlington's finances."

Conservative resources spokesman Charles Johnson had hit out at the Labour group's plans to dip into council reserves to the tune of £6.8m to help fund services.

He said residents needed relief from the 74 per cent increase in council tax imposed by the Labour group since coming to power.

Coun Johnson added: "This is not a needy budget, it is a greedy budget. I said that last year and I say it again this year.

"The interests of the taxpayers must take priority over the crusades of the Labour Party."

The Tory proposal was rejected and a majority of councillors voted in favour of the 4.8 per cent rise.

The figure is lower than previous budget estimates of a 7.5 per cent rise.

Councils across the country had been facing financial dilemmas in recent months, with the Government insisting that council tax rises must be below five per cent.

Darlington Council must also make £1.3m-worth of efficiency savings over the course of the year.

The council has highlighted the £3m refurbishment of the Dolphin Centre and developments at Haughton Road, West Park and Morton Palms as evidence of their success in delivering a good deal for local people.