Dear Sir,

In answer to Councillor Michael Stead’s poorly-researched and abusive letter in last week’s issue of the Newton News. I gave the reasons why I voted against his motion quite fully last week.

He alleges that I do not know what I am doing on the matter of double taxation. As the Chairman of the Larger Local Councils Committee in 2009/10, I represented the committee at the Durham County Consultative Committee and it was agreed that double taxation is unfair and obtained discretionary grants for all affected parish councils. Great Aycliffe received grants totalling £154,000 over four years.

His proposal that Great Aycliffe Town Council approach Durham County Council on its own would be doomed to failure. Durham County Council would not settle the issue with one council and ignore the claims of many other town and parish councils in County Durham.

Councillor Stead goes on to quote that ‘a raft of services are provided in other areas’. He quotes three areas – Chester-le-Street, Crook and Consett.

Chester-le-Street is largely parished and has more parish councils than Aycliffe, for example Waldridge Parish Council, Pelton Parish Council, Lumley Parish Council, among others. Only the town centre and the Riverside area are unparished.

Now for Crook. Has he visited Crook and identified the raft of services provided? When I officially visited the area a number of years ago, with Councillor Bill Blenkinsopp, Crook had a welfare recreation area at Pease West (provided by the Miners’ Welfare Fund) and a very nice swimming baths. I visited Crook recently and did not see any rafts of new services, but the swimming baths have been demolished.

I have not visited Consett in recent years so I am unable to comment on what is provided by Durham County Council there. I do know it received assistance from a number of agencies to help the area recover after the closure of its steelworks.

Councillor Stead goes on to say that unparished areas have wonderful flower displays, which we get from our Town Council for an additional cost. He should check his facts before he goes into print. Yes, in Newton Aycliffe we have some wonderful flower displays, especially at the entrance to the town from the A167, down Central Avenue and around St Mary’s roundabout. This wonderful display was originally provided by Sedgefield Borough Council, is planted and maintained by Durham County Council and not Great Aycliffe Town Council. We do provide plants in our parks and Aycliffe Village.

He then goes on to claim that we are paying £250 a year more Council Tax than other towns, without naming them. The figure of £250 is deceptive, as 74% of the rate payers in Newton Aycliffe live in Band A-C houses and pay far less than this amount. The following figures are taken from a document ‘Schedule of Council Tax by Town and Parish Councils Within Durham County Council 2020/2021’. At Band D, these are Great Aycliffe £250, Chilton £218, Easington Colliery £272, Horden £305, Peterlee £285, Seaham £246, Shildon £275.

Great Aycliffe Town Council budget is £1,717,500, of which £67,000 is paid in providing the statutory services of cemeteries and allotments. All other services which are provided are discretionary. If Councillor Stead is proposing to reduce Town Council tax he has two main avenues – Raise the charges to the public or reduce services.

As we are preparing our Medium-Term Financial Plan and next year’s budget, I would be pleased to receive Councillor Stead’s proposals on which specific charges he wishes to increase, and which specific services he would propose to cut. Before he does so, I suggest he visits those councils mentioned above and check the services they provide, compared to those that the residents of Great Aycliffe receive.

I find his comments on the Town Council not being run efficiently offensive. Not only to all members of the Council, but also to our excellent staff members. What does he base this comment on? We have high level, independent auditors, who examine all areas of our finances annually. Over the past 13 years, from 2006-7 we have had the highest possible results, which in audit terms are ‘unqualified’ which means that the auditors have no adverse comments to make on our finances. We have, however, received many positive comments, the most important being that Great Aycliffe Town Council provides good value to its rate payers. Has Councillor Stead ever studied, or even seen, the auditors’ reports before making his outrageous comments?

Councillor Stead has shown time and time again that he has not done any serious investigations to so many items in his letter, he has not done his homework.

As for his attack on my leadership, Councillor Stead knows so little about me as a person or as a councillor that I won’t even comment on his allegations.

Finally, Councillor Stead states that the voters do not believe a word that we say ‘satisfaction surveys carried out in 2017 and 2019 showed that 79% and 87% of those responded thought Great Aycliffe Town Council provided very good services and value for money’.

In my opinion, Councillor Stead is not really interested in the £5.61 that he pays per year to Durham County Council and double taxation. That is 10p per week (if he saves it for a fortnight, he will be able to buy a carrier bag). No, it is all about next year’s County Council and Town Council elections. Why do I believe that? On seeing the motion that Councillor Stead presented to the Council, I sensed that all was not as it seemed so a number of enquiries were made to other councils and lo and behold we discovered that identical (down to every sentence, letter and full stop) motions were also put before Spennymoor and Shildon Town Councils. When confronted with these facts, Councillor Stead admitted in Council that this was a Liberal Party motion, that was being presented to other councils in the area. So, did Councillor Stead compose the motion or was it composed by person or persons outside of Aycliffe in an effort to discredit the County Council and Town Council. This was an underhand move at the very best, so who was really trying to pull the wool over who’s eyes? I will leave the reader to judge.

Councillor Bob Fleming

Chairman of Policy and Resources Committee

Leader of the Council