We must also recognise the good work done and the important projects for our county undertaken over the last year with the help of Government funding such the £14.6 million flood damage funding, the £7.5 million masonry repairs to our bridges, the £1.3 million pothole repair fund, the Morpeth flood prevention scheme, the Morpeth Northern bypass and three new high schools, Prudhoe, Alnwick & Bedlington.
However we all know we are facing a tight budget with increasing demands on Council service in Childrens and in Adult Social care in particular.
But Labour’s response is a typically simple one – let’s all just blame the Government!
The only problem here is when you look at the facts the Council’s ability to fund services, its Core Spending Power, does not reduce over the next few years – it says broadly the same.
So you have got to ask yourself where the problem lies. Well it is quite clear the enormous and increasing debts which have been built up over the last 4 years are the root cause of most of our problems. £1bn and rising to over £1.4 bn – over £10,000 for every household in the county!
Yet there is a deliberate attempt to gloss over the issue of interest and debt repayments in the budget before us.
There is the “missing page” which I asked to be sent out at the Cabinet meeting. The missing page which is the explanation of the so-called commitments. Well I can tell you that this shows the Council’s interest payments increasing by some £16.4million per year over the next three years. Yes, this is a huge sum each year which could pay for approx. 400 extra teachers for our young people or carers for the elderly.
In addition to this officers have told us that debt repayments are due to increase by approx. £10 million per year placing even further pressure on our stretched budgets.
Labour’s priorities are clear to all from last year’s budget. They spent over £1m over the last two years on their spin doctors, on fancy videos, adverts on bin wagons, billboards featuring the Leader, stealth advertising on the local papers.
Yet they closed a valued Fire Station, closed libraries and TICs, and doubled leisure centre charges, seriously affecting communities and families.
All I ask is what lies in wait for our communities next year if they have to continue to suffer a Labour Council?
This then brings us to the serious financial risks being taken on by Arch which used to be run on the basis on political consensus.
Arch has gone far beyond its original remit becoming a virtual hedge fund, speculating many millions of taxpayers’ money on highly risky propositions. Labour now want this to dramatically increase to hundreds of millions.
One example amongst many is the £120 million purchase of the Manor Walks shopping centre in Cramlington, bringing massive liabilities, not creating any new jobs and with no plan to pay off this huge debt. A £120 million punt which Arch admits will bring it hardly any profit at all.
At the same time Arch has virtually ignored the regeneration needs of many of our towns across the county, pursuing an agenda that is more driven by Labour politics than by actual need.
It is also totally inappropriate that Arch is engaging in the project of buying up assets worth millions outside of Northumberland, in places such as Stockton and Durham, and now spending large sums of public money with the main aim of creating a property empire rather than fostering new business and new jobs within our own county.
It is my duty as the eyes and ears of the public to express their real concerns and to say that Arch is taking real risks with public money. If there were either an era of increasing interest rates or any significant drop in property values, which would happen in any recession, Arch could be in deep trouble. The potential is for real risks to turn into huge liabilities.
If anyone should resign from the Arch board it should be its Chairman who has overseen such an unsustainable build-up of debt with no plan to repay it.
And the most worrying proposal in this whole budget is the resolution to give/delegate a fund of £450 million over the next three years for the Leader and Chief Exec to give out, mainly to Arch, on their say so alone with no criteria, no accountability and no need for justification.
This really is playing fast and loose with public money on a scale that our county has never seen before and it is plain wrong.
How they could want that responsibility with the ethical questions it will throw up is beyond me. How anyone else on this Council can accept this is also both a mystery to me but also a dereliction of their Councillor’s duty to look after taxpayers’ money.
Many of the proposals in the capital budget are indeed shared and supported by all Groups. So my Group is particularly pleased to see that the Council has finally listened to our repeated calls to do something about the lack of car parking in our towns. Of course this whole situation has been made worse by the Council actually selling off many car parking spaces, 300 in Hexham alone.
My Group supports, in particular, leisure investments, the Alnwick Playhouse and the original Queens Hall schemes as well as supporting the potential of the Ashington, Blyth Tyne line, which has Government support to progress. However, it now seems the Queens Hall scheme has been significantly downgraded and the people of Hexham and the West of the county snubbed yet again.
But, what on earth made you promise £8.5m to the Alnwick Garden on the back of a fag packet with no business plan and no consultation with the members of the Council to one of the richest families in the country?
Our Council has been made a laughing stock in the national press over this. The headlines are just incredible – “Cash strapped Labour Council in £8.5m loan to aristocracy.” You could not make it up. An elves paradise? NO, La La land not Elvin land.
Also in the capital programme is the capital receipt from the sale of the Loansdene Fire Station site here in Morpeth.
A sale which we all know includes a site for a McDonalds fast food take away directly across the road from the new First school for 500 impressionable young children. In an era of serious long term health issues with obesity in young people this sale just shows the lack of care and lack of planning for our community. This is the hallmark of this Council.
This is not only a planning issue but a matter of morality. I know of no other place in the country where this would happen and it is plain wrong.
Another area of disagreement is with the proposal to set aside £40m in the capital programme in relation to the S106 on the 2,000 houses in Greenbelt Dissington scheme. To my mind this smacks of the Council acting as though the plans will be passed before they go to planning. The technical term is pre-determination.
Finally, my Group’s view on the unwanted, white elephant new County Hall scheme is well known. It is nothing but a vanity project at the vast expense that taxpayers and we still maintain that the true figures have been kept from public scrutiny.
We cannot support a budget which includes this ridiculous waste of money and yet still threatens many essential daily services.
What we have now is an Us and Them county – a two tier county.
Our vision for Northumberland could not be more different.
We have a vision of a Council which listens to local people and not just dictates, which values all people equally and provides the services they rely on.
We have a vision of a Council which protects essential daily services and which does not threaten our finances with hundreds of millions on risky speculations.
We have a vision of a Council which embraces every opportunity for our county, such as the Northern Powerhouse, which is fair to all our towns and not just concentrating on the Labour heartlands.
We have a vision for a Council which pays its dues not leaving billions for future generations to pay off.
A Council which invests for new jobs and a healthy economy not a Council which plays fast and loose with hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money in an attempt at creating a huge property empire.
A Council which plans for essential infrastructure our roads, our schools, our healthcare facilities, which stands up to the current March of the Developers overwhelming our towns, which supports our young people to access the best education for them and so plant the seeds for the future of our communities.
This budget plays to a different agenda putting our County Council massively deeper into debt, up to £1.5 billion, placing huge risk to the future of our county and a serious threat to the viability of the funding for our essential services.