WEARSIDERS are set to see council tax bills frozen after city leaders put forward their “most difficult” budget in decades.
Sunderland City Council’s ruling cabinet tabled the freeze – which will see householders continue to pay the lowest council tax bills in Tyne and Wear – as part of its budget for 2011/12.
Most taxpayers in the city – those in Band A properties – paying £895 per year from April, compared with £1,007 in Newcastle and £1,066 in Gateshead.
It will also allow council chiefs to access a £2.3million council tax freeze grant from the Government – but the authority is still having to stomach nearly £58million being chopped from its budget by ministers.
Council leader Paul Watson said: “The council tax freeze is part of a budget that is introducing more efficiencies and savings. It is also a budget that contains a range of measures for improving and investing in services, supporting services and encouraging economic development and regeneration.
“We are seeking to protect frontline services as much as possible by concentrating on delivering savings through new ways of working but also ensuring the city is best placed to secure further economic regeneration and recovery.”
Senior Labour councillors on Sunderland’s cabinet condemned the Coalition Government’s funding cuts as “unnecessary”, a “disgrace” and a “disaster” as they approved the budget proposals.
Coun Watson said: “We are looking at the most difficult budget that any of us can remember – and obviously we can remember the bad times of the 1980s.”
Councillors did, however, praise the work of officers for minimising as much as possible the impact of the cuts.
Savings include shedding £26million in back office and goods and services costs as well as making better use of property and ICT.
The council says, however, that £19million in cuts to grants for specific areas will mean some services cannot be sustained at their present level, including provision at children’s centres and some services in schools.
Almost £10million of Working Neighbourhoods funding, aimed at tackling worklessness, will be cut – which officers say has meant the loss of “critical investment” in Wearside’s economy.
Councillor David Allan, responsible for resources, said this – coupled with the loss in real terms of almost £8million from education – showed the Government had “declared war on the long-term unemployed and young people and children.”
The council has again stressed there are no plans for mass redundancies such as those announced by Durham County Council and other authorities, and efforts were being made to target the areas of highest need, with “significant reinvestment” in key frontline children’s and adult services.
Sunderland Conservatives leader Tony Morrissey said council officers had told his councillors the budget cuts were “difficult yet manageable” and pointed out again that reductions would have been made whichever party was in Government.
He accused Labour councillors of crying “crocodile tears” and stressed they had been planning for reductions since 2008.
He added: “The one thing that shines through from this budget is that the hard-pressed council taxpayers in Sunderland are not going to see their bills go up again this year.”
Coun Morrissey said Labour had raised council tax “year after year” when it had not been necessary, but had now frozen bills under pressure from the Coalition Government.
The budget and council tax freeze must now be ratified at a full meeting of Sunderland’s 75 councillors on March 2.