This is an adapted and abridged version of 'Councils' cash curb' (Newcastle Journal, 8 February 2008).
The government is set to impose financial controls on district councils in... County Durham to stop them "blowing" budgets before new unitary authorities are established in 2009.
The Communities Secretary is likely to delegate power to committees of district and county
leaders leading the unitary move, before the role passes to new countywide authorities being elected in May.
Details emerged after Durham North MP Kevan Jones called for controls after expressing concern over the risk of “ludicrous” contracts being signed by district councils as MPs discussed legal orders that will formally begin the countdown to unitary status.
Mr Jones strongly backed a unitary Durham authority but claimed Derwentside district council was spending £10m on “a mausoleum” for the previous council leader – which his office later said referred to plans for a new leisure centre at Berry Edge, near Consett. “I would not want the new county council to come into being with a long list of commitments or to find that in the meantime land had been divested to various organisations,” said the Labour MP, with Communities Minister John Healey promising controls would be used to protect taxpayers
Alex Watson, leader of Derwentside council, warned £11m in reserves held by his “good house-keeping” authority, with £10m set aside for the Berry Edge leisure facility, would be spent elsewhere because of the “draconian” financial controls. He defended Berry Edge, saying two old sites were past their “sell by date”.
Durham County Council leader Albert Nugent, who chairs the county-district group overseeing reorganisation, said councils were running on a “business as usual” basis with checks to ensure any decisions creating an “unreasonable liability” for the unitary council were properly considered.
Durham County Council holds general reserves of £11.8m and earmarked funds of £68.9m