Joe Watts at the Labour Party conference: Shadow minister backs Tory council

Conservative held Norfolk County Council has found an unlikely ally in shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn who yesterday defended the authority's decision to hold �200m in reserve.

Recent figures showed that in the past year an extra �50m has gone into the council's usable reserves, increasing the amount held in the bank from �155.8m in March 2011 to �205.1m this year.

The hike, revealed in the council's accounts, comes at the same time as the authority is in the midst of making �135m worth of savings over three years.

As a result hundreds of jobs have been cut. Meanwhile the authority has scrapped its own youth service, reduced subsidies to rural buses and slashed spending on maintaining public rights of way.

Questions have been raised by Liberal Democrat group leader Mike Brindle about whether the authority should release some of the funds to either save jobs or reinstate some of the services being drawn back.

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But questioned by the Eastern Daily Press on the issue at the Labour party annaul conference in Manchester yesterday, Mr Benn did not repeat calls that the county council change track.

He said instead: 'If you talk to council treasurers at the moment, apart from the reduction in funding they're facing, they have absolutely no idea what they're going to get next year because [central] government is changing the local government finance system, with the introduction of business rate localisation.

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'So until councils know what their baseline is going to be, and the Bill is still going through Parliament, it's back in the Lords next week, it is not surprising that councils are trying to hang on to reserves to deal with what they don't know is coming their way.'

He added: 'It's like what lots of families are doing, it's exactly the same thing. If people have got anything they can save they are hanging on to it because these are uncertain and difficult times - councils are not different from anybody else.'

County council leader Derrick Murphy said it was 'prudent' to set the money aside and that some of it would be used to improve school facilities and roads, which would benefit local people in Norfolk.

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