LOOKING after vulnerable people must be councillors’ first priority when it comes to deciding whether council tax should increase in Cambridgeshire.

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That is the view of county council leader Nick Clarke, who believes the bottom line for setting the rate for 2013/14 is whether the authority can afford to protect its growing elderly population.

Ideally he would like council tax to go down, he said, but the “ultimate test is whether we do the right things for the people of Cambridgeshire”.

He and his cabinet “haven’t made a decision about what the level will or won’t be” but he insisted it was not a political decision – even if others seek to use his words or actions for their own gain.

However, he added: “We may need to raise additional cash to ensure we can continue to act as the organisation of last resort.”

The council is trying to balance a projected £153million shortfall in its £1.2billion budget by 2017 – and Cllr Clarke said it had already made itself as lean as possible.

“All the low hanging fruit has disappeared,” he said. “There is not enough money to do what we were doing before.”

His main worry is that Cambridgeshire not only has to “absorb the central Government cash reductions in providing the current level of services,” as all authorities are having to do, but “work out how we are to support the huge additional demand placed on us because of growth”.

He added: “The reality is that if spending levels are to such an extent where we can only do the services that we currently provide, the only option I’ve got is to sacrifice growth. No one wants to sacrifice growth and the people of Cambridgeshire would not thank us for it.”

Cllr Clarke’s tactic is not to go to central Government with a begging bowl asking for more money, he says, but to “raise the profile of Cambridgeshire” so that the Coalition can be persuaded to take action that will support additional growth in the county.

That may not necessarily be in the form of grants or extra money but in allowing the county council to keep more of its revenue or raise more by itself.

“I am determined that we will protect the elderly, the young and the infirm but the question is how,” he said. “I will seek to stand up for those that need us most because they need a strong voice to be heard but this is not going to be pretty.”

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