Councillors have voted to freeze their basic allowances for the year ahead.
An independent panel had recommended a one per cent increase for members of Durham County Council.
However, the council’s Labour leader Simon Henig told a full council meeting at Durham’s County Hall it was not an appropriate time to be considering an allowance increase and proposed it be left unchanged.
Liberal Democrat Nigel Martin proposed a lower mileage allowance, of 45p per mile rather than 48p – a proposal backed by Conservatives and some independent councillors.
However, the Labour motion was passed by 86 votes to three, with nine abstentions.
Source – Northern Echo, 23 Jan 2015
Labour chiefs at the North-East’s biggest council are drawing on cash reserves to stave off deeper spending cuts until after next year’s General Election.
Durham County Council must save another £16.2m in the financial year from April, the lowest annual figure since the last Election, taking the total cuts imposed between 2010 and 2018 to nearly £250m.
However, the figure then rockets to £32m and £39.1m for the following two years and the 2014-15 total would have been much higher had officials were not spending £10m from reserves.
Tory Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has repeatedly lambasted Labour councils for cutting frontline services while sitting on huge reserves.
Labour chiefs at Durham have to date resisted demands to spend their nest egg, but it is thought they have relented now in the hope of avoiding the deeper cuts planned for 2016 to 2018 if Ed Miliband becomes Prime Minister next May.
Durham’s Labour leader Simon Henig said: “Overall spending totals will be the same but we’re lobbying hard for a fairer distribution.
“If that happens, our savings targets will be reduced.”
Next year’s cuts include £8.5m from children and adults services, including £4m from a review of management and support services; and £2.6m from neighbourhood services, including £933,000 from introducing charges for garden waste collection.
The sums are based on an assumption council tax will rise every year by two per cent, although specific decisions are taken each February.
The authority expects to have cut £136.9m by April, including £23m this year.
Opposition groups the Derwentside Independents, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives welcomed the use of reserves, with Lib Dem leader Amanda Hopgood saying they currently stood at £160m.
The authority’s Labour cabinet will discuss its 2015-16 budget at County Hall on Wednesday, December 17, before the full council takes the final decisions in February.
With pressure mounting to reverse a decision to axe free transport for students, Northumberland County Council has agreed to hold an extraordinary meeting in Morpeth next week.
Angry parents and opponents of the Labour administration at county hall have been urging the county council to reverse its decision to reintroduce transport charges for students over the age of 16.
They say it discriminates against parents in the north and rural parts of the county and that the consultation was inadequate.
They have also been highly critical of county council leader Grant Davey for avoiding a meeting to raise the concerns.
But an emergency meeting has now been called. It will take place at County Hall in Morpeth on Friday at 9.30am.
The motion to be debated has been put forward by Conservative group leader Peter Jackson.
He is requesting the suspension of the decision and the introduction of a new consultation process.
Mr Jackson said: “The leader of the council Grant Davey can run but cannot hide from the electorate.
“He has been doing everything in his power to avoid public accountability. Labour have made a huge mistake with this teenage tax and we are asking them to revisit this decision which will be discussed at an extraordinary meeting of the council.”
But Mr Davey, leader of the council and the Labour group, accused the Tories of playing politics:
“The extraordinary council meeting could end up costing the council tax payers over £40,000, which is a very expensive way to play gesture politics after their own government has raided Northumberland’s budget to the tune of £130m.
“It’s cynical, hypocritical and it goes to show that local Tories would rather spend than save money.”
Protestors met senior county council officers on Wednesday to express concern about the lack of engagement with the public.
Leading protestor Allison Joynson said: “Whilst I appreciate the officers taking the time to meet with us, and the fact that finally a dialogue has begun, it became quickly apparent that the Labour administration is not prepared to seriously consider revisiting this discriminatory policy.
“It was evident from the discussions that the council had no real appreciation of the huge impact on the people of Northumberland especially those from rural areas.”
The county council voted to scrap its free transport scheme for pupils over the age of 16 last month in a move which will save £2.4 million.
From September 1 students will pay the full cost where public transport is available, or £600 a year to travel on council contracted school transport.
Council bosses say they were forced to bring back charges as they have to remove £32m from the authority’s budget in 2014/15 and a further £100m over the next three years.
But furious parents in the rural north of the county say their children are being penalised for staying in education, and are calling on the administration to change its mind.
The pressure group opposing the plans has already staged a demonstration outside the Duchess Community High School in Alnwick and has circulated a petition demanding a rethink.
Source – Berwick Advertiser, 05 July 2014
Youngsters from Tynedale wishing to stay on at school, or go to college, will have to pay £600 per year just to get there from September.
As expected, Northumberland County Council is scrapping free transport for sixth formers and college students, in order to save £2.4m per year.
That means youngsters starting in sixth form will have to pay £600 to travel on the same school bus they have used for free since the age of 9.
But the move has evoked Tory fury, as the opposition at County Hall has accused the ruling Labour group of imposing a tax on teenagers, which could put them off gaining qualifications.
“I cannot believe that Labour are so willing to threaten the life chances of our young people with this teenage tax of theirs,” said Coun. Peter Jackson, leader of Northumberland Conservatives.
“This excessive tax on our students and their families will put many off furthering their education at all.”
Coun. Jackson said the intention appeared to be that the only college courses available to Northumberland students were those offered by Northumberland College at Ashington.
Coun. Jackson said: “This is an insult to the young people of this county.
“As we all know, Ashington is a most difficult place to access by public transport, if not impossible from some parts of Northumberland.
“The future prosperity of our county lies in the successful careers of our young people. Yet here we have a Labour-led council making the wrong choice.
“They are happy to protect the interests of a few at the top at the expense of those who live elsewhere.
“They plan to spend millions on a new county hall and a new leisure centre in Ashington, yet are not prepared to give all our young people an equal chance.”
Hexham’s Coun. Cath Homer said the “teenage tax” was a direct attack on local people and their children who are working hard to make ends meet.
She said: “We need to have young people able to access the best course in the best college to help them get the best chance in life.
“The Labour council has now imposed a take it or leave it plan which means only the richest will be able to have choice.
“This sends the wrong message to young people and could put the long term economic prosperity of the county at risk.
“I am very concerned that in years to come our young people will decide if Northumberland doesn’t value them, they will leave.”
The Tories were critical of the fact that the two Independent members of the council from Tynedale – Ovington’s Coun. Paul Kelly and Stocksfield’s Coun. Mrs Anne Dale – failed to back the Tory opposition to the proposal.
They pointed out that the £600 charge for school transport was the highest in the North-East.
County council leader Coun. Grant Davey said: “We do not make any cuts with relish. It is regrettable that we have to make any cuts, but we must balance our budget.
“Where we make cuts we will protect those in greatest need and continue to focus our resources on helping our county to grow. We will always do right by our communities.”
The new scheme will come into effect from September 1, but sixth formers already in the scheme will not be affected.
Special provision will be made to exempt the most vulnerable groups, such as students with special educational needs, or those from low income backgrounds, who attend their nearest appropriate school or college.
The average annual cost to the council of transport per student is currently in the region of £936 a year.
Northumberland is unusual among local authorities in that it still provides free transport for 16-19 year old students.
Durham County Council has already withdrawn its post-16 travel scheme and Cumbria County Council is also withdrawing the subsidy.
The number of Northumberland students claiming free transport has increased from 800 to 3,500 over the past five years, and 40 per cent of students travel to educational establishments outside the county.
Whilst the numbers of students claiming free travel has increased dramatically, the numbers of students from Northumberland attending post-16 education have remained static at around 7,000.
The council is now hoping that the withdrawal of free transport could lead to school sixth forms and colleges in Northumberland extending the range of courses they can offer.
Source – Hexham Courant, 09 June 2014
Tourism projects vital to Northumberland will be denied a chance to bid for Government cash.
Hopes of building on Northumberland’s tourist hotspot status were dashed when planners were told the latest Government advice was that new projects would not bring in enough jobs and so will not get any cash from a £2bn local growth fund.
Officials in Northumberland were told the news when they asked for £2m from the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, the business-led group backed by Government tasked with co-ordinating job creation efforts. Cash would have gone towards The Sill project, a visitor centre which would have created more than 100 jobs.
The partnership told Northumberland the blame lay with the Government, saying cities minister Greg Clark made the blunt assessment of the likelihood of funding bids being successful when he met business and council leaders last week.
But last night the Cabinet office said it was “absolutely wrong” to rule out tourism projects, and insisted the North East could try for cash if it could prove that the tourism project would create jobs.
Tourism in Northumberland alone is said to support some 16,000 jobs, but, Northumberland County Councilhas been told, strict funding rules for the new cash pot will rule out supporting visitor centres, galleries or hotels. The snub has raised fears at County Hall that money handed to the region through the Local Growth Fund will almost entirely benefit urban Tyneside and Sunderland.
“To say that ‘tourism isn’t an economic priority’ downplays the significant role this sector plays in the wider Northumberland economy but especially in Tynedale. Last year it accounted for over £700m in the county economy and underpinned over 13,000 jobs. The Conservative-led coalition doesn’t understand our needs.”
The Sill project, based near Haydon Bridge, is for a discovery centre and office space bringing in an expected 100,000 visitors, with 15,000 expected to stay overnight.
The partnership’s tourism advice also raises question marks over further tourism cash for other Northumberland projects, including a share of the £7m needed to further develop Kielder Forestwith a tree top walkway adventure centre and wildlife support.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “It is absolutely untrue to say that tourism projects are less likely be successful in bids for local growth deals.
“Any bid must be able to show good evidence of benefits for the local economy in terms of jobs and growth, and bids from the tourism industry will be considered on their individual merits alongside every other sector. It is for the North East Local Enterprise Partnership to decide what priority they give to the individual bids in the region, according to the evidence provided.”
A spokesman for the partnership said they were still finalising plans, adding that: “We have been advised that tourism and cultural projects are less likely to achieve these ambitious measures.
“This does not mean the end for the Sill or other projects which could not be prioritised at this time and we will be working with partners to identify alternative funding sources wherever possible.”
Source – Newcastle Journal, 25 March 2014
And on a similar theme…
The Trust set up to safeguard Hadrian’s Wall is to be closed down as a result of funding cuts.
Staff at the Hadrian’s Wall Trust face an uncertain future after English Heritage decided it had no option but to pull the plug on support.
The body had being tasked with managing the World heritage Site, but control will now have to be shared among various councils along the route.
English Heritage, Natural England and the eight local authorities who part fund the Hadrian’s Wall Trust are working with NorthumberlandNational Park Authority and the Chairman of the World Heritage Site Management Plan Committee, to put new arrangements in place to safeguard one of the country’s most famous landmarks.
Henry Owen-John, English Heritage planning and conservation director for the North West, said the funders were left with little choice.
He said: “The Trust as a charity is working in a pretty tough financial climate, as are the people who contribute funds to it, such as English Heritage.
“The Trust has been very successful in raising money for specific projects, but the difficulty is finding funding to cover its core costs, the day to day costs, and it is this which has led us to our decision.
“These are difficult times that we all have to operate under. The Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site is unusual in that we do not normally cover the management sites, it is really just this and Stonehenge where this happens, and we have to bring that situation here to an end, and try to get the management self sustaining.
“The people who will take over after the closure of the trust are committed to the future management and coordination of the sites.
“Northumberland County Council will take a lead role in coordinating this now.”
Mr Owen-John said promotional work this year will continue.
“It will take approximately six months to bring the affairs of the trust to a satisfactory conclusion, and the spring and autumn promotional work will continue as planned this year.
“We want to continue marketing Hadrian’s Wall as a whole rather than each council just marketing its bit of the wall.”
English Heritage has had a hard time when it comes to securing Government cash. In 2010 it had some 30% of its budget axed.
In 2013 the Department for Culture, Media and Sport came back for more cuts, asking for 10% from the heritage group’s 2015/16 budget.
Last month The Journal revealed concerns among North East councils that plans to reform English Heritage could see it cherry pick the best sites for its new management arm at the cost of less glamorous sites.
The changes have prompted fears from former Newcastle council leader Lord Beecham and former regional minister Nick Brown that the moves were akin to privatising the service.
In response, Sir Laurie Magnus told The Journal he wanted to “make clear that English Heritage considers its sites in the North East to be among the most important, interesting and beautiful in England. The advantage of the proposed change is that we will be able to invest more in them not less.”
In Northumberland it is hoped the staff currently working for the trust will, where possible, be found work with the councils and other bodies helping look after the wall in future, with decisions being made over the next six months.
Grant Davey, leader of Northumberland County Council: “Hadrian’s Wall is a core part of the county’s tourism industry. We are working alongside our partners with businesses, communities and all other stakeholders along the route to support them and keep them informed of developments. Our priority is safeguarding the Wall into the future.”
Source – Newcastle Journal, 25 March 2014