Devon County Council’s staggering £507 million-plus debt is “well below half the national average” when viewed per head, leader John Hart has said.

The head of the largest authority in the South West of England pointed out that each Devon resident owes £624, while councils nationally owe the equivalent of £1,455 per resident - more than double in comparison.

Mr Hart was responding to recent research by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, as reported in last week’s paper, showing that Devon County Council (DCC) has the biggest debt of all the county’s four major local authorities.

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

In a written response, Mr Hart told this paper that during his time as leader “Devon has not borrowed to buy speculative assets, such as shopping centres, as some local authorities have done”, adding that reducing debt was “a priority”.

He said: “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.”

He added that DCC had obtained government funding to pay for about £1.85 billion of investment for the South Devon and North Devon link roads among other infrastructure projects.

DCC also borrowed cash to build five schools in Exeter in 2006 at a total cost of more than £350 million, the majority of which is funded by central government, as well as £5 million for a waste plant for which DCC received PFI support of £2.54 million (PFI or Private Finance Initiative contracts are a type of public-private partnerships that are used to fund major capital investments).

Justifying the outlay, Mr Hart said the “reorganisation of education in Exeter” had brought the school system into line with the rest of Devon, resulting “in a big rise in (the city’s) academic standards”.

He added: “The modern waste-to-energy plants we have invested in will, similarly, benefit residents for years to come and allow a much greener disposal of waste creating new energy.”

He also reaffirmed his support for the Freeport project, part of which extends into South Hams, reputedly involving £20 million in investment, saying it would provide income for the future while “providing good jobs for our residents”.

Regarding the £160 million hole in the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities budget (SEND), which will likely increase by £5 million in March, Mr Hart claimed “almost all education authorities have overspends in this area”, pointing out that central government had ordered all councils to hold these deficits off their balance sheets.

He said: “We are in advanced negotiations with the Government under what's called their ‘safety valve’ programme, which will help fund this specific area of expenditure.

“We will not set our budget for 2024/25 until next month, but we will not be asking the government to raise council tax by 10 per cent like some neighbouring councils, and we intend to set a balanced budget – living within our means – without raiding our reserves to do this.”

This paper contacted both Torbay Council leader David Thomas and the head of Plymouth Council head, Tudor Evans.