Between 1 April 2015 and 31 March 2016, Durham County Council’s reserves are expected to rise by around £20 million, that’s well over £50K for every one of the 366 days (leap year, remember). Indeed the total of council reserves is now approaching £250 million.
Why talk about this now? Well, today was the annual performance of the county council setting its budget and council tax level for the new financial year that starts on 1 April next, and the Lib Dem Group decided that it was time to make a point about the way in which reserves have risen over the past few years.
The proposal from the Labour Group this year was to raise council tax by 3.99%, comprising 2% specifically for Social Care (the government is telling councils to do this in recognition of the pressure that we are coming under in this area) plus another 1.99% tbexause of government cuts that are certainly causing all councils to squeal ever more loudly as the years of austerity go by.
The Lib Dems accepted the necessity of funding social care and so did not object to the 2% for that, but we proposed a freeze on the remaining council tax by moving an amendment to remove the additional 1.99%.
The argument goes like this. Every year the Labour group goes on about the iniquity of the cuts and how difficult it is to deal with them (in principle I agree), but on the other hand it keeps stashing away more and more cash into so-called “earmarked” reserves . In 2012-13 it put Almost £8m into reserves, in 2013-14, it was almost £64m, in 2014-15, it was just over £49m and as I said above, in 2015-16 it will be around another £20m.
So here we are with shedloads of cash in the bank, increasing by the day, and there has been no real plan set out as to when these earmarked reserves will be spent. We just get general statements like “well, it will help us soften the blow of the cuts to come”. The trouble is that they have been saying that now for several years while the numbers keep rising.
So, on the evidence of recent years, we think that there is scope to give some relief to the council tax payers this year without undermining the serious long-term issues (such as elderly social care) that the council has to deal with.
Naturally we were outvoted and so, I’m afraid, you will be getting an increase of 3.99% next year for the County Council’s part of your council tax demand.
But I still want to know what the detailed plans are for deploying these earmarked reserves over the next few years. Don’t you?