Councils across Devon are in debt to the tune of more than £1.5 billion, according to new figures.

Data by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities shows that the biggest local authority in the county, Devon County Council (DCC), has the biggest debt – almost £508 million, the equivalent of £624 per person.

Plymouth Council has the next biggest total amassed debt, with £477.7 million, although the debt per person is higher at £1,805, while Torbay Council has the highest debt per person of all (£2,747). Exeter City Council registered the lowest overall debt and is £165.5 million in the red.

The research was brought to light last week by the BBC.

The problem is reflected throughout the country with a debt mountain reaching critical levels in most councils.

In its report, the BBC said UK councils owe a combined £97.8bn to lenders, equivalent to around £1,400 per person.

Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, described some of the outlier examples of high local authority debt as “staggering” (Woking amassed more than £1.9 billion in debt) warning of an "extreme and long-lasting effect" if more councils were to go bust, while adding that the impact on services for residents “is liable to be extreme and long-lasting”.

The head of South Hams District Council, Julian Brazil, accused DCC of failing to adopt a strategy for debt by “salami-slicing” public services.

“It’s short-term gain for medium and long-term pain,” he told this paper.

He called on DCC to make “fundamental and systemic changes to the way we deliver our services, which will make savings in the long run”.

However, Mr Brazil downplayed the significance of the figures, pointing out that much of the debt at DCC was taken out to invest in infrastructure and was therefore “manageable”.

“It’s costed and there’s a business plan – it will be paid back,” he said, comparing much of the debt to a person’s mortgage.

He cited PFI (Private Finance Initiative) contracts - a type of public-private partnership (PPP) that is used to fund major capital investments. The government abolished the system in late 2018, except for contracts that had already been signed.

In exchange for regular payments from the taxpayer, private companies carry out building work as well as maintenance. Critics however claim that PFIs are used to remove large debts off the balance-sheet.

In Devon’s case, the PFI was used to build five schools in Exeter in 2006. According to DCC, the contract runs until August 2033 at a total cost of more than £350 million, the majority of which is funded by central government.

The other notable contract is for a £5 million waste plant for which DCC received PFI support of £2.54 million.

Cllr Brazil also cited £20 million that was taken out to invest on the Freeport project. He said he hoped the money would be returned through the business rates retention.

“Where we have a massive problem is on the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities budget (SEND) and adult social care in general, which will go up to £165 million by March,” he said.

Council tax

DCC's leader John Hart pointed out that its debt per person was much lower than the national average, claiming that the current administration had reduced debt by £100 million.

He said: "Councils nationally owe the equivalent of £1,455 per resident...(but) figures show Devon owes £624 per resident - well below half the average. During my time as leader, Devon has not borrowed to buy speculative assets, such as shopping centres, as some local authorities have done. And we have made it a priority to reduce debt.

"When my administration took over control of Devon in 2009, we inherited around £600 million of debt and cash reserves of some £300 million. Despite the years of austerity, the pandemic and world-wide inflation, we’ve got that debt down to £500 million and over the last 15 years have had no extra borrowing."

Regarding the overspend on special needs education, he said DCC was "in advanced negotiations" with the government to help fund this area under its "safety valve" programme.

He also revealed that DCC would not be asking the government to raise council tax by 10 per cent "like some neighbouring councils".