THE POLITICS FILE: Going back to basics in a year of discontent
COUNCILS in Gwent are facing a “truly bleak” few years as cuts begin to bite, the Welsh Local Government Association says. We investigate how services will be affected.
COULD rows over service closures and council cuts in Gwent and beyond be repeated for years to come?
This year Newport council has proposed a number of cuts to services which have proved controversial with residents in the city – from care and respite homes to Gwent Music Support Service.
But the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) says the pain is unlikely to ease, with councils in Wales expecting a bleak financial forecast for the foreseeable future.
It expects councils will face increasing pressure to cut funding to some services in order to protect funding to those that must be provided under law, such as education and social care.
One council leader said the current round of austerity is making people “think the unthinkable”.
Councils across Wales are currently in the process of working on their budgets for 2013/14. All must have them agreed by March 11, 2013.
Councillor Aaron Shotton, WLGA deputy leader and spokesman for finance and resources, said local government finances are under severe pressure because of the impact of the poor economic climate, spending cuts and welfare changes.
Cllr Shotton said: “Budgets are already tight and councils in Wales can expect to face a truly bleak financial forecast for a number of years to come.
“With councils across Wales entering the final stages of setting their budgets for the coming year, tough decisions have to be made on how to make ever-shrinking budgets meet an increasing demand for public services.”
He said the financial pressure that had been talked about for so long was now “very much a matter of ‘here and now’”.
Local authorities, which get most of their money from the Welsh Government, may face tough financial settlements until 2020-21, with savings of as much as 52 per cent needed in some service areas.
“What we can expect to see from 2013 onwards is increasing pressure on local councils to cut discretionary funding in service areas that are not protected, in order to cover the mounting costs of statutory services such as education and social care,” Cllr Shotton said.
“Unfortunately, 2013 looks like the year when something will ‘have to give’ when it comes to financing local public services.”
At Blaenau Gwent Council provisional plans have been made for £1 million in savings for 2013/14, and the authority is formulating a number of savings proposals for consideration later this month.
Hedley McCarthy, leader of the Labour group which won control of the council at May’s elections, said his administration is committed to protecting education and front-line services.
“I hope that the recession won’t last for ever, but the more we cut the deeper we get. This is the problem,” he said.
“We have got the nasty party in government who are quite happy to take it out on the most vulnerable people in our society.
“As one famous MP said, it makes you start to think the unthinkable.”
Monmouthshire is currently consulting on its proposals of £4 million savings for 2013/14, with a YouTube video explaining some of the council’s ideas.
Among the proposals are charging for green waste, increasing council car-park fees, reducing choice for children’s school meals and putting up their prices, and losing leisure centre caretakers.
Phil Murphy, cabinet member for finance and performance at Monmouthshire Council, said: “We have got to find innovative ways of providing services.
“We will be using new ways of thinking to re-examine everything we are doing. All we are hoping to do is find better ways of continuing to deliver them.”
He said that was different from the approach from other authorities.
“It isn’t comfortable. It is necessary.
We are looking after public funds here. It’s our duty to find more economical ways of doing things and more innovative procedures.
We should be looking to be able to spend less,” he added.
He said charging for green waste was not as onerous as it seemed, and people would still be able to take their waste to a transfer station or bring site. But people who want the waste taken away could be charged around £40 a year.
Torfaen council says it is in an advanced stage in putting together its budget for 2013/14, and cabinet is due to consider a range of proposals this month.
Executive member for resources Cllr Anthony Hunt said: “The next few years, it is unlikely difficult choices can be avoided altogether.
Whether we like it or not, we will be forced to look at the services we provide, how we provide them, and, where appropriate, at how much we charge for them.
“Our objective will always be to protect communities and safeguard our most vulnerable residents and the services they rely on. We will also continue to look at innovative approaches of working with our dedicated staff and their unions to protect employment.”