LEADING members of Durham County Council could get inflation-busting pay rises of up to £6,000.

An independent panel, which includes Durham University vice-chancellor Sir Kenneth Calman, has recommended the rises for the Labour council's ten-strong cabinet.

The panel is recommending a £6,000 rise to £16,764 for deputy leader Don Ross and a £5,000 increase to £26,528 for leader Ken Manton.

Other cabinet members would get an increase of £5,500 to £10,882 and rises of £5,500 and £4,500 are proposed for the chairman and vice- chairman of the council's scrutiny committee.

As well as these special responsibility allowances, cabinet members receive the basic allowances that all councillors get.

The panel recommends that this be increased from £7,206 to £7,458, in line with the 3.5 per cent pay award for council workers.

The panel's report, leaked to the Press, says that 'the work undertaken by the leader and deputy leader and by members of the cabinet is substantial and it is difficult to see how these could be any other than full-time commitments'.

The council spends more than £500m a year and employs more than 16,000 people in major services.

It levied an increase in its share of the council tax of almost 9.2 per cent and has been criticised for providing home computers for councillors, cutting road gritting and proposing to end free bus travel for school pupils on 'unsafe' walking routes.

The Independent councillor for Weardale, John Shuttleworth, criticised the panel's recommendations.

He said: "It will create two tiers of councillors. I don't believe that cabinet members do any more work than ordinary councillors.

"It is really insensitive given the council tax increase this year and the bigger rise last year and I'm sure it will annoy a lot of people - particularly when services have been cut.''

But Coun Manton said his role was in effect a full-time job running the 'biggest business in County Durham'.

He said that councillors tended to be elderly but all political parties recognised the need to make local government more attractive to younger people, women and ethnic minorities - and more representative of their communities.

He added that no decision had been taken and further discussions would be held with the panel after May's district council elections.