With the Welsh Government indicating that councils across the country could be facing budget cuts as deep as 4.5 per cent next year, NATHAN BRIANT finds out what it means for Gwent.
WHEREVER you are in Gwent, cuts to your county council will be coming soon. The size of them and their impact is uncertain – but they are definitely coming.
Over the last few weeks, Gwent council leaders have said they have been shocked by the Welsh Government’s local government minister Lesley Griffiths who has warned them to expect a considerably bigger cut in their budget than they had before.
According to a Welsh Government spokeswoman: “The Local Government minister wrote to local authorities to provide as much clarity as possible. Local Government requested this dialogue and we hoped it would inform a mature approach to planning for the reality of financial challenges which lie ahead for all public services in Wales.
“No one should doubt the high value Welsh ministers place on public services and in the current financial climate, effective forward planning will be crucial in ensuring citizens can continue to receive these services.
“The information sent to local authority leaders will allow them time to engage with local people before making what we appreciate are likely to be difficult decisions.”
The leader of Blaenau Gwent council Hedley McCarthy sums up the five leaders’ view: “Just when you think it would get no worse, it does.”
In terms of a worst case scenario, the leaders have been warned that their councils might need to make up to 4.5 per cent of cuts.
In Blaenau Gwent, that would be worth the equivalent of £7.8 million next year. It would be “an enormous cut”, Cllr McCarthy said.
He added: “None of us came into local government to make these decisions but it is either that or the council goes under. The consequences of that are unthinkable. We are the biggest employer in the county borough.
“None of us want to (make cuts). I can’t think of any party that would want to do it. I have got to say I was a councillor through eight of the Thatcher years and this is harder, this is more draconian.”
But he said the council is better prepared than some others around Wales. It had planned to make bigger cuts than the 1.5 per cent that other councils have been expecting but the impact would still be great.
Caerphilly council leader Keith Reynolds, Monmouthshire council leader Peter Fox, Newport council leader Bob Bright and Torfaen leader Bob Wellington have all spoken out about the potential impact on what their authorities might be able to achieve.
In Monmouthshire, where the council is at pains to say it has not cut services but reduced them to deal with their cuts, Cllr Fox has said services might need to be axed.
That authority had allowed for a possible two per cent cut next year but might need to find another £2 million above that if the 4.5 per cent cut is confirmed.
The council’s cabinet member for resources Cllr Phil Murphy told the Argus earlier this month that the reductions would “place an intolerable burden on frontline services – services that have made great advances in delivering at lower cost.”
The scope of every council in Gwent has been reduced in some way. Monmouthshire council is employing 379 fewer staff than it was in 2011; its staff numbers have been reduced by 8.6 per cent. With less money to spend, it is surely to be expected these numbers to decrease further.
A council spokesman said: “We have so far managed to maintain services through working differently and focussing on the needs of the people who use those services through initiatives like Monmouthshire Engages. Key to maintaining services has been to as far as possible keep the talent, knowledge, experience and commitment of our staff. But despite that, it has been impossible to avoid job losses.”
In Caerphilly, where the authority had been working on a reduction of 1.34 per cent for the next two years , they might need to add £17.7 million for their savings for 2015/16 and 2016/17.
Cllr Reynolds said: “The potential for this degree of additional cuts means we will need to rethink our current approach and it is clear we will be required to cut harder and deeper in order to deliver these huge savings. I would urge the Welsh Government to provide clarity about the actual budgets reductions as soon as possible so that we can make firm plans for the future.”
So there is less money around – but there will inevitably be a demand for the services councils provide. Children will need to go to council-run schools; people might want to go for a dip at their local swimming baths, for example.
And there have been glimpses of what the future might hold for what might appear to be expendable or unessential council services around Gwent already – like swimming baths and leisure centres.
At the beginning of this month, Torfaen Leisure Trust celebrated a year since it took over Torfaen council’s leisure facilities, and its chief executive Sally Church said users had increased by 2.49 per cent on the previous year.
And Torfaen council’s deputy leader Cllr Lewis Jones said the trust was an example of “how the council is working in different ways to protect our public services.”
In Newport plans were passed in May for a trust to take over their leisure services in the near future. Blaenau Gwent’s leisure centres have already been handed over to a trust.
And while Cllr McCarthy said further outsourcing the services to other groups outside the council would be “anathema” to him as a socialist, he said in such challenging times a pragmatic approach might be the only realistic solution.
Why the cuts are being introduced is a talking point: Peter Short from trade union Unison said the cuts have had an “extremely deleterious effect on services” on workers’ stability and have been brought on by spending plans instituted from Westminster. But Monmouth MP David Davies said the Welsh Government has chosen to shrink the share for its local authorities and that the money being given to Wales from the UK Government has actually increased.
Regardless, the director of the Institute for Welsh Affairs (IWA), Lee Waters, said the cuts will continue for the councils: “We’re half way through the cuts – 1.5 per cent was do-able; 4.5 per cent is eye-popping for them. These are game-changing.”
He said while different governments have different priorities – English counties’ budgets have been “slashed” quickly, Welsh council’s cuts were far more gradual – the cuts will still continue.
The general election next year should be formed around what the shape of local government will be in the future, he said.
For now, council leaders might think in the short term – they are politicians, typically looking forward to the next election, after all.
But the long term could bring even more considerable changes. A White Paper, Reforming Local Government, released by the Welsh Government last week could alter the face of Gwent councils considerably. The most obvious change mooted that five councils would be merged to form two, as was recommended by the Williams Commission.
Under that proposal Newport would merge with Monmouthshire council; Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly and Torfaen councils would be merged into one.
Lesley Griffiths writes in the foreword that public services are “almost unrecognisable” from even a decade ago. The way councils are set up might not even be the same in a decade’s time.
More of the plans will be known by next January, when the Welsh Government will introduce a Bill for preparatory work for possible council mergers. The Bill would allow the Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales to start considering electoral arrangements for new council areas.
In the White Paper the Welsh Government said they are unable to “ignore the fundamental challenge of sustainability, scale and capabilities” which authorities face.
But before a possible change in Gwent authorities, there will be slashes to spending.
As the White Paper says, the Williams Commission “received a lot of evidence arguing ‘people do not care who delivers a service as long as it is a good service’.” More services might be provided outside council control very soon.
l The Welsh Government’s consultation on The White Paper will finish on October 1. To submit comments, post them to Reforming Local Government, Welsh Government, Cathays Park, Cardiff CF10 3NQ, or email them to ReformingLG@wales.gsi.gov.uk or respond online.