GWENT'S councils have set their budgets for 2013/14 and, while some have closed services, others haven’t. But the financial outlook is not good and future years could be bleak. DAVID DEANS investigates.
IT’S been a tough few months for Gwent’s authorities as they work to balance their budgets.
But the challenge is not going away, with councils facing a £50 million black hole in their budgets between 2014 and 2016, with the UK government expected to further squeeze public finances.
The region’s five authorities are already pulling back £28 million from their budgets in the coming financial year.
To tackle the changes, some authorities, such as Newport, have chosen to cut back some services.
But different authorities have taken different approaches.
Monmouthshire, which says it is not cutting services, is using £1.7 million from its reserves.
Blaenau Gwent made the largest council tax rise in the region, while Caerphilly said it had already made its savings ahead of setting the budget.
To bridge the gap, councils can make cuts, can choose to put up council tax, use their reserves or try to generate more income.
There has been massive variation in what councils have done on the latter.
While one valleys authority, Blaenau Gwent, put up council tax by 4.6 per cent, one council, Monmouthshire, chose not to put council tax up at all.
The authority facing the largest potential savings between now and 2016 is Newport – which is to be expected as it is the largest council.
Councils get most of their money from the Welsh Government, with local government funding devolved to Cardiff.
This year an additional pressure has been changes to council tax benefit. The UK government decided to devolve the benefit to Wales but only by a set amount and with a 10 per cent cut.
Although the Welsh Government provided some funds to cover part of the shortfall, councils still had to budget to find the rest.
PEOPLE ON MARCH: Protest against the closure of Underwood Leisure Centre in Newport
NEWPORT - Uproar as city services to go
NEWPORT City Council has made the headlines after it announced a number of changes to services in the city.
The council is having to make £7.9 million in savings for the coming 2013/14 financial year – but faces a future gap in its finances of £15.9 million for the next two years.
With the authority working on a five-year financial plan, many of the proposed changes reported by the Argus are planned for future years.
Service changes earmarked for 2013/14 include the closure of Underwood leisure centre.
The council has agreed to axe its subsidy of £292,000 for Gwent Music Support Service, as well as its finance of £79,000 for the Gwent outdoor education service.
A £15,000 hardship fund for the music service is to be created to support pupils whocan’t support the music service’s fees.
Family aide services for people with learning disabilities are to end. The service aims to help individuals access community facilities and live independently.
Ringland and Baneswell Resource Unit day centres for people with learning disabilities are also set to close, saving £186,000. A package of £255,000 of savings for leisure included ending the temporary exhibitions programme, closing a squash court complex and reducing the public opening hours of the Bettws Active Living Centre.
The arts and development team saw its budget cut by £150,000 – with the SuperDragons events unlikely to take place again.
Newport council is also proposing to make a number of changes to the libraries service, including shutting Stow Hill library.
The council put up council tax by 3.5 per cent to £854.89 for band D properties.
Bob Bright, council leader, said that the authority was balancing the need to make savings with maintaining services and protecting jobs, while also acknowledging residents are dealing with the impact of the financial crisis.
BLAENAU GWENT - Tax up and less gritting
RESIDENTS in Blaenau Gwent face the highest council tax rise of all the Gwent councils.
Councillors there agreed to put council tax up by 4.6 per cent, with households in band D properties paying £1,310.
Officers argue that a council tax rise was needed to counter the anticipated impact of the council tax reduction scheme – known to most as council tax benefit.
The authority was faced with having to make £4.3 million in savings for 2013/14.
Savings at the council include closing Market Hall Cinema in Brynmawr and cuts to the school library service.
Subsidised local bus services between Abertillery and Arael View and between Brynmawr and Newport would be reduced, while the council’s essential car user allowance would also be cut back.
However, the cinema closure has been the most controversial of the measures.
Councillors were faced with protests and shouts of “shame” when they approved the 2013/14 budget earlier this month.
PRICE RISE: School meals in Monmouthshire
MONMOUTHSHIRE - No pain now – maybe later
LEADERS at Monmouthshire council stuck to a pledge to not raise council tax for the 2013/14 budget.
The authority said it had made no cuts to services and covered much of its £4.3 million savings target by putting charges up.
But it is also releasing £1.7 million from its reserves to help some of its changes and support the budget. The council faces a broader funding gap of £16.5 million in the years to 2016/17.
On some measures Monmouthshire is hoping to boost income by investing in services – although in one case a council document admits that an estimate of howmuch would be generated was a guess.
The authority hopes it will make £10,000 from a voluntary food premises licensing scheme, with food businesses able to access consultancy support.
However a consultation document admits that the potential income is an “absolute guess (cos no previous experience anywhere)[ sic]”.
It is hoped that £100,000 can be generated by investing in fitness equipment in Monmouthshire leisure centres, while £140,000 would be saved by “removing the caretaker model at leisure centres,” with site duty officers opening and closing them.
The authority wants to fundraise £50,000 for its museums, and hopes it can generate an extra £143,000 by reviewing service costs for traded services.
Charges for some services, such as pest control, are expected to rise by 2.5 per cent. The council wants to impose a charge for green waste by charging for bags.
School meal choice will reduce, while meal prices will rise by 5p, saving £30,000.
Plans could also see an end of printing of agendas for meetings, saving £10,000, but the council also intends to spend money on buying tablets for councillors.
Proposals to increase car parking charges by 10 per cent have been withdrawn pending future discussions.
REVIEW: Greenmeadow Farm in Torfaen
TORFAEN - Real challenges loom in future
TORFAEN avoided drastic cuts to services when it agreed its 2013/14 budget earlier this year, despite having to make £7.3 million in savings.
But members have been warned this is likely the last budget of its kind and that a fundamental review of spending and priorities are needed to address the services and financial challenges ahead.
As well as not replacing staff when they leave, the authority is making voluntary redundancies and increasing service charges.
Council tax is rising by 3.35 per cent with people in band D properties paying £1,007.88.
School meals will rise by 5p and cemetery fees are set to increase from £775 to £837.
The authority believes it will save £450,000 from the fall in the number of pupils in schools.
It is reducing its spend on external legal costs by £100,000, and wants to transfer management of Blaenavon Pavilion to a community group or an alternative voluntary sector agency, saving £20,000.
It is hoped a review at Greenmeadow Community Farm will reduce costs there by £30,000.
The authority wants to pass the leasehold and freehold of community halls to a registered social landlord or another third party who would directly manage them, saving £22,500.
Green waste services will be charged for during winter months when they are suspended – saving £91,000 with Torfaen offering a collection service for a fee.
A total of £77,000 could be saved on not carrying out specfic collections on missed bins – it’s proposed these are left until the next scheduled collection.
Replacement black bins will be charged for, while a business plan is being finalised for the Blaenavon World Heritage centre to review ways of increasing income.
CUTS: Savings of £760,000 have been made in Caerphilly's education budget
CAERPHILLY - Savings in advance
CAERPHILLY council aimed to make more than £5 million in savings on its budget – but claimed that it had already achieved its target before it set its budget for next year.
Councillors have voted to put council tax up by 2.35 per cent, to £918.84 for a band D property The authority said that it had achieved £5.2 million in savings ahead of the 2013/14 financial year.
These include £760,000 in education and leisure, £356,000 for environmental services and £511,000 for corporate services.
The move meant that councillors did not sign off on individual cuts measures when they met to discuss the budget last month.
However, a report said that £6 million in savings are needed by 2016.
Councillors are set to receive reports throughout the year to seek approval for proposals to achieve that amount.
Budget for 2013/14: £143,955,917
Savings proposed for 13/14: £4,200,000
Estimated gap in budget 2014- 16: £6,300,000
Council Tax rise for a Band D property: 4.60% (£1,310.37)
Budget 2013/14: £337,466,000
Savings proposed for 13/14: £5,091,000
Estimated gap in budget 2014- 16: £6,221,000
Council Tax rise Band D property: 2.35% (£918.84)
Budget 2013/14: £171,760,885
Savings proposed for 13/14: £7,266,945
Estimated gap in budget 2014- 16: £15,297,000
Council Tax rise Band D property: 3.35% (£1,007.88)
Budget 2013/14: £254,798,000
Savings proposed for 13/14: £7,900,000
Estimated gap in budget 2014- 16: £15,940,000
Council Tax rise Band D property: 3.5% (£854.89)
Budget 2013/14: £157,649,000
Savings proposed for 13/14: £4,300,000
Estimated gap in budget 2014- 16: £6,800,000
Council Tax rise Band D property: 0% (£1003.69)