Political parties debate new budget for Devon

WIDE-ranging debate on the County Council s new �1.2 billion budget for Devon highlighted clear differences of opinion over the use of Council reserves to support spending in 2009/10.

WIDE-ranging debate on the County Council's new �1.2 billion budget for Devon highlighted clear differences of opinion over the use of Council reserves to support spending in 2009/10.

The new budget is underpinned by a 2.89% rise in Council Tax -- the lowest in this County Council's history -- and Liberal Democrat Leader Brian Greenslade commended the achievement as "a budget for stability in these uncertain times."

However, Councillor John Hart, Shadow Conservative Leader, described the budget as a 'spend now, pay later' budget that gives "a poisoned chalice to the party in control after the Council elections in June."

He criticised the poor level of Government grant for Devon schools and warned that to make the budget balance the Liberal Democrat administration was planning to use millions of pounds from reserves.

"As well as using �4.5 million from the second homes money budget and �2 million from the reserve insurance fund, the Leader is also using another �11.5 million from dedicated funds but only programming to put back some �5 million in this year.

"In order for this strategy to work safely for 2009-10, we will need an outturn that can restock the reserves and very tight control on spending this year from all departments. There is very little slack left within the County finances."

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Cllr Hart said figures showed a rise in Council staff and he called for a review of staffing levels.

He warned the Council's debts could rise to over �650 million and would cost some �35 million in interest charges, equal to 10% of Council Tax. This was at a time when investment income was falling by as much as �8 million.

Cllr Hart said the County and District Councils should do more to explain what is available to help those eligible for Council Tax assistance.

Welcoming the low Council Tax rise, the Leader of the Labour Group, Cllr Saxon Spence, supported the use of reserves that are not required to reduce pressure on the budget. She said she was alarmed that some Councils seem to be making cuts to services most needed by the very people who are vulnerable to the effects of the credit crunch.

"The Government had given Devon a generous three year settlement and the strong capital programme, again thanks to the Government, meant that the Council could give a boost to the Devon economy", she said.

"Our message to the Liberal Democrat administration is to make sure front line services are protected and, where needed, enhanced. Of particular concern to us is ensuring high quality provision for children and young people. We would urge that priority be given to making sure we can meet the growing demands for constructive activities for Devon's young people.

"We also have grave concerns about the Council's capacity to meet the increasing needs of Devon's frail elderly and those with physical and learning disabilities. The Primary Care Trust is considering withdrawing services from highly dependent folk with the consequent increase of pressure on Devon's Adult Services. This seems to be a sign that there is a still a divided approach to finding the means to look after our oldest and sickest citizens."

Councillor Brian Greenslade, Liberal Democrat Leader of the Council said: "Given the Conservative's attack on the budget we would take their views more seriously if they had proposed amendments to the budget. For the second year running they did not suggest any amendments. They have also refused to serve on a value for money task group being led by the Liberal Democrats.

"Use of reserves in the current climate is perfectly justified and we expect that in twelve months time the County Council will still have reserves, balances, and provisions of �60 million.

"This is a good budget for Devon with the lowest tax rise ever and with substantial investment in infrastructure which will help the Devon economy cope with the current extreme difficulties. This is a solid, stable, dependable budget from Devon Liberal Democrats.