Sunderland’s Labour leader has vowed to ‘take every step possible to ensure vulnerable residents and those living hand-to-mouth are not plunged into further financial hardship’ by council tax rises he said have been ‘forced by Government’.

Councillor Graeme Miller said that the council will do everything in its power to ensure that the city’s most vulnerable residents, and hardworking people and families who are ‘struggling by’, are shielded from ‘inevitable council tax rises in Sunderland’ that follow the Government’s move to pass the bill for adult social care to local authorities.

He has said that Sunderland City Council will use reserves and make changes and efficiencies to ensure that families already hit by hardship during the Covid crisis are the last to feel the impact of Government plans that will force a council tax rise.

Councillor Miller said: “At a time in which our residents – and people up and down the country – face unprecedented challenges, this Government deals them yet another blow by expecting them to foot the bill for adult social care, something that can only mean council tax goes up.

“I am absolutely determined that we protect hardworking families who are already living hand to mouth -with barely enough money to live as it is – as well as our most vulnerable residents, many of whom have already been left exposed by a crisis that has plunged so many families into difficulty.

“This Labour council will always do everything in its power to protect hardworking families and individuals from the financial pressures that are hitting them during this health crisis. We will make whatever efficiencies are necessary and use whatever reserves we have to, in order to minimise the impact they feel at the hands of a cynical move by Government to burden councils with more costs it knows they can ill-afford to take on.”

Though Sunderland will remain the lowest council tax authority in the region – across the twelve local authority areas in the North East and Tees Valley Local Enterprise Partnership areas – the council leader said the Government’s expectation that authorities will raise council tax to fund costs associated with adult social care meant that councils would have no choice but to increase charges.

Cllr Miller branded the move to pass another bill onto the council as ‘disgraceful’ and said that he deeply regretted having to review the tax, but that his party is ‘powerless, in the face of a Government that appears to be tone deaf to the hardship of families across the country’.

“We have two main income streams as an authority,” he said. “Council tax and Government funding. This Government knows that if it starves us of cash or puts additional responsibilities our way, ultimately the only way we can balance the books is to review the council tax that our residents pay.

“We are at the mercy of a Government that is either blind to the challenges normal people are facing, or so utterly contemptuous that it doesn’t care. The fact that we still have a shortfall in funding for Covid of £12.5m compared to what we have paid out to support businesses and people during this pandemic, shows that this is a Government content to pass the buck to authorities, and put them in an impossible position.”

The council has had no choice but to increase council tax since 2016 to offset reductions in Government funding. This has seen the proportion of the council’s core spending power that is collected locally increase from 33 per cent to over 42 per cent next year.

Cllr Miller added: “We can only rationalise so far. We have always tried – as best as possible – to protect all of our residents from the impact of central Government funding cuts, avoiding moving to the highest permissible level of increase for the last five years.

“However, even with a 5 per cent increase in council tax, we still cannot balance the budget without using reserves. This Government knows very well that, when it hands over bills to authorities that are already woefully underfunded by them, it forces our hand. To do it in the middle of a pandemic, off the back of 11 years of austerity during which we have faced a funding gap of around £315m is beyond cruel – it is heartless.

“True to form, this Tory Government is happy to add to these financial woes, while £1bn of Government contracts – cynically snuck through during this pandemic – line the pockets of their friends. It’s an absolute disgrace.”