TAXPAYERS are facing above-inflation rises in their council tax bills this year to offset a £12m equal pay claim from staff.

At an emergency meeting yesterday, members of Durham County Council voted to ratify the authority's £500m budget for the coming year.

Following a £368.5m grant from central government, the authority is asking people to pay a 4.6 per cent tax increase in the amount they pay for county council services.

Council leader Councillor Ken Manton said that while the increase would finance improved services in a growth programme that is worth almost £10m, a significant part of the rise was being swallowed up by the £12m the authority was setting aside to deal with equal pay claims from staff.

The authority, in common with other councils across the country, has been involved in protracted negotiations with trade unions to resolve an historic dispute over the grading of different posts.

Unions say it discriminates against female employees, such as school cooks, in favour of traditional male posts, such as road sweepers.

Coun Manton described the issue of equal pay as "the elephant in the corner" and said the authority had taken the decision to deal with it now.

"We are at last dealing with equal pay," he said.

"We are in the process of trying to settle out of court through negotiations with the trade unions and the workforce, but it means setting aside £12m for compensation this year and something in the order of £8m in future years.

"It may be causing a huge strain on our budget this year, but at last we are tackling it head on."

However, Coun Manton also said the budget - the last before county council elections in May - included increases of £7.7m for improved health and social care, including employing more social workers and building extra care homes, £0.9m more for school renovation programmes and an additional £0.6m for recycling and waste schemes.

He said: "This budget is about how we continue to provide excellent services and build on those excellent services.

"As a Labour group we are taking forward our priorities and commitments.

"We have clear targets for savings, clear targets for growth and we are delivering them."

Liberal Democrat leader Councillor Nigel Martin said: "This isn't the council's budget, it is the Government's budget.

"We believe in local democracy and local choice and we aren't being given that choice. We should get rid of this iniquitous council tax and bring in a local income tax, and the sooner the better.