Devon’s most vulnerable people will end up paying the price of making sure the county doesn’t go bankrupt, councillors have been told.

There were angry exchanges at the county council’s cabinet as members discussed its financial position.

They were told that the latest estimates showed the council heading for an overspend on its budget of £9.3 million, in addition to a deficit of £36.6 million in services to children with special educational needs.

Adult social care and children’s services account for the lion’s share of the overspend.

Cllr Phillip Twiss (Con, Feniton and Honiton) outlined the figures and said the council was in a much better position than it had been this time last year when it was looking at a £35 million overspend.

He said savings could be made to create a £10 million ‘safety valve’ to support the special educational needs deficit.

“This will signal to the Department for Education that we mean business and we will deal with it,” he said.

But Liberal Democrat leader Julian Brazil (Kingsbridge) said it was “incredibly frustrating” to hear that Devon’s problems were caused by Covid, inflation and war in Ukraine when every council in the country is facing the same pressures.

“Why is it that Devon is doing so badly?” he asked.

“Everyone has the same issues. We are now seeing cuts to services in order to build a £10 million reserve, which is total smoke and mirrors.

“If we continue along these lines of trying to pretend that everything is okay, we will go bankrupt.”

Cllr Frank Biederman (Independent, Fremington Rural) added: “We have had a government which has had no respect for the people of Devon and the south west generally. It has treated the county like a poor relation for donkey’s years.

“We are going to have to make savings, and it will be the most vulnerable people in our society that suffer.”

Cllr Brazil accused the Conservative-led council of lacking leadership and a sense of purpose, but council leader John Hart (Con, Bickleigh and Wembury) hit back, and said the special educational needs issue was one which the government had handed to local councils, expecting them to make it work.

And, he said, the Tories had inherited hundreds of millions of pounds of debt from the previous Liberal Democrat administration in 2009.

“Don’t talk to me about why we have sat and done nothing,” he said. “We have done an awful lot on this council, but we haven’t been able to get rid of the debt we inherited.”