Cumbria County Council has agreed its budget for the coming financial year, which includes a rise in council tax of nearly 4 per cent.

The budget, proposed by Liberal Democrat deputy leader Peter Thornton and supported by Labour leader Stewart Young, set out the council's financial and spending plans for the 2021 and 2022 financial year, as well as its medium term spending plans for the next five years.

Among the recommendations proposed as part of the budget was an increase in council tax of 1.99 per cent for the coming financial year, as well as a rise in the adult social care precept of 2 per cent.

In total, this means an overall rise on the county council's share of council tax of 3.99 per cent.

This equates to an annual increase of £57.48 for a Band D property, or £44.71 for a Band B home.

The proposed budget was opposed by Conservative councillors, who argued that the council tax increase was "unjustified" and "unreasonable" in the face of such significant financial pressures faced by Cumbrian residents in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But deputy leader and cabinet member for finance Peter Thornton argued that the rise had been included in the budget in light of the Government's decision to have the "bulk" of additional funding for adult social care, sourced from local authority council tax rises.

"Continuing to instruct councils to raise more and more via council tax is not a long-term sustainable answer," he said.

He called on the Conservative-led Government to "deliver the much-promised solution to the challenges of funding adult social care".

"The Government have delivered on their promise to fund Covid-related expenses, but I do want to say now that they have failed, yet again, to deliver a sustainable basis for council funding," he said.

"This cannot be blamed on the Covid emergency. The issues were there long before last year.

"They should have been resolved long ago."

Conservative councillors responded by challenging the decision to increase council reserves from £15m to £25m, arguing that it was unreasonable to do so when council tax payers were being expected to shoulder a greater financial burden.

This argument was challenged by Lakes Liberal Democrat councillor Will Clark, who said it would be "irresponsible not to increase reserves" in the face of the uncertainty brought about by Covid-19, local government reorganisation, Brexit and the possibility of another local incident akin to the likes of Storm Desmond.

The county council's Conservative group leader, Penrith North councillor Hilary Carrick, said that the proposed budget "makes it absolutely clear that the overriding priority of the leadership of this council is their own Machiavellian stranglehold on political power at the expense of the people we are elected to represent".

"Our country and our county has been ravaged by the effects of this deadly virus," she said.

"The people we represent are under pressure, the likes of which we have not experienced for generations.

"Against this stark reality, I find it absolutely incredible that the budget this administration wants you to agree today is the same old vanilla template of increasing council tax.

"To add insult to injury, seizing the opportunity to levy the additional social care precept on top of the already identified increase in council tax.

"This proposed total hike of nearly 4 per cent is unjustified, it's unreasonable and frankly it's unbelievable."

In addition to the Conservative group's opposition to the proposed budget, Mrs Carrick proposed an amendment to the budget of a new allocation of £1.5m over two years from the council's innovation fund to bolster the council's ability to provide "early help and support to vulnerable families".

Mrs Carrick said that more early intervention work would "reduce the need for escalation through statutory services, and prevent some of our most vulnerable children from going into care".

Announcing her intention to vote against the budget, Mrs Carrick called on Mr Thortnon to "provide an alternative" budget, "that provides a more acceptable balance between the financial requirements of the council and the burden it places on the very people we represent".

"While it is sound financial management for the council to have adequate reserves to protect them during times of uncertainty, these are far form normal times.

"While the leaderhsip is proposing to stash significant amounts of money away for a rainy day, if it chose to look through the window at the real world outside, it would see it's not just raining, it's absolutely torrential."

The county council's leader, Stewart Young, also the Labour Party councillor for the Upperby division in Carlisle, said he was "quite staggered" to hear Mrs Carrick attack the decision to raise the adult social care precept charge.

"I suspect she knows perfectly well it was her Government that introduced it, and of course will assume that we have implemented it," he said."

"Our funding in the future will continue to make that assumption."

He said that this rise in funding for adult social care "should be being provided by central government, rather than hard-pressed council taxpayers, who are already struggling because of the impacts of the pandemic.

Mr Young added that the Government had sprung a "bombshell" on local authorities by indicating in its spending review that future funding for adult social care was set to assume that the maximum rise of the adult social care precept allowed of 3 per cent over the next two years would be made use of.

"Rather than do what they should be doing, which is raise taxes centrally, and they will eventually have to do that, to pay for all the borrowing they've incurred - rather than do that they are passing it on to local council tax payers.

"Then they've got the cheek to try and blame the local councils."

Mr Young also pointed out that the county council's Conservative group had not proposed a change to the council tax rises as an amendment.

"If you look at the proposals that have been circulated to us, for all that was said about the iniquity of the adult social care precept, here we find that the Conservatives are proposing to impose the adult social care precept," he concluded.

Stephen Haraldsen, the deputy leader of the Conservative group and councillor for the Yewdale division in Carlisle, did urge the council in his address to "insist that this administration go back to their original costed proposal of only raising council tax by 1.99 per cent".

"I urge this council to think about the most vulnerable people in the county, as this Conservative group is doing, and support our amendment and provide that additional funding for vulnerable families in our county," he said.

"The injustice and the unfairness of this greedy and grubby hoarding of millions of pounds wrung out of the pockets of our residents to squirrel away in doubling our reserves at their expense, cannot go unchallenged."

Dr Haraldsen also voiced a personal challenge to Mr Young: "For the leader of the council to have the gall to say that council tax payers are hard-pressed, while hiking tax and squirrelling it away is a new low for our submarine leader who can only seem to pop up to carp, criticise and complain and not provide the leadership this county so desperately needs."

Some similarly strong words levelled at the Conservatives then came from Karen Lockney, Labour councillor for the Denton Holme division in Carlisle.

"I resent listening to a reminder of the tragic effects of the pandemic from a Conservative group when report after report shows the effects of the pandemic in the UK have been magnified precisely because of the effects of Conservative austerity politics and policies, plus a shocking handling of the pandemic, allowing us to have the highest number of Covid deaths in Europe," Dr Lockney said.

"In proposing the amendment, the Conservative group leader says we need to look out of the window and see the downpour.

"We do not need reminding. We're working in our communities on a daily basis", Dr Lockney said, adding that she sees it in her work with Carlisle Community Help, which provides food to some of the city's most vulnerable residents.

"We need action to tackle the structural inequalities, so we don't need to rely on donations, small scale grants and people's goodwill."

Returnin to Mrs Carrick's metaphor, she added: "We have been looking out of the window for the past decade, and we are heartily sick of the rain".

Robert Betton, one of the county council's three independent members and the councillor for the Botcherby division, informed the council that he would not be supporting the Conservative group's amendment as it would "impose more debt" on the taxpayer.

He added that he could not support the budget proposed by the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition administration either, due to what he argued as inaction on the part of the leadership to address issues surrounding funding for adult social care.

"I asked the leader at full council last year to lobby the Tory Government about the delay to the green paper regarding adult social care funding, so we would not have to charge Cumbrian council tax payers a separate precept of an additional precept again this year," he said.

"It's fallen on deaf ears."

In closing the debate, Mrs Carrick challenged what she described as suggestions that raising the adult social care precept was something the council had to do.

"It's not something [Stewart Young] has been told to do by Government, it's something that Government gave him the option to do," she said.

She said that the Government had presented local authorities with the option of putting in place a maximum rise of 3 per cent over the next two years.

"He could have gone for any combination - nothing this year, [or] three per cent in two years."

"The bottom line is it is not somethig he was told to do."

As the mover of the budget motion, Mr Thorton had the final word, and argued that the Conservative group had "got in a terrible mess", adding that the group was seeking the council's approval for its amendment, which the group was then set to vote against.

Mr Thornton concluded that the council administration has to take a "long term view" to the council's finances.

"The Government have looked after us this year, there's no guarantee for next year," he said.

"We have to look to the future."

When put to a vote, the Conservative group's amendment was subsequently defeated, and the overall budget was passed by 43 votes in favour, and 33 votes against.