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Councils’ budgets ‘war of attrition’

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The cost of cuts: Councils will lose 4.5% net

THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT settlement announced by Welsh Government continues an eight-year run of real term reductions to local government funding.

That’s according to the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) in response to Tuesday’s (Oct 10) announcement of the provisional budget for local government by Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford.

The Welsh Government claims the Budget will ‘protect key services’, as they continue to squeeze councils into devoting an ever-larger slice of an ever-diminishing budget to its core priorities.

‘COUNCILS PROTECTED FROM WORST OF CUTS’

While the Welsh Government claims that no council will have to cut more than 1% off its budget next year and 1.5% off the budget for 2019/20, when other costs are factored in all councils will be faced with a further significant cut above and beyond the headline claims. And taking Welsh government grants out of the final settlement suggests that cuts will be deeper still.

Announcing the provisional settlement, Mark Drakeford said: “Last year I told local authorities to prepare for the tougher times and harder choices that lay ahead as the flawed and failed policy of austerity continues to hit Wales hard.

“My priority, using a formula we have agreed with local government, is to try and protect councils from the worst of the cuts.

“Next year’s settlement might be difficult. We have done all we can to make it manageable. Councils must now use this time to plan ahead and ensure that funding goes to the services and people who need it the most.”

‘SERVICES HAVE BEEN PUMMELLED’

Professor Drakeford’s words got a stony welcome from the WLGA.

A statement from the body said: “In the context of ongoing and prolonged austerity, councils will view this as a very difficult and challenging settlement for supporting vital services that contribute to the education, health and well- being of our communities.

“Leaders across Wales have pushed for parity of funding and particularly sought new investment in a range of services, such as economic development, environmental health and transport, which have been pummelled by cuts.

“The headline reduction of 0.5% fails to recognise the full story; with service pressures that amount to £212m in 2018-19 alone, the sector will have to look for savings of nearly 4.5% of net budgets in the next financial year. This comes on top of cuts of over £1bn that have been made to date and 25,000 job losses across the sector. While the reduction is within the range predicted by the WLGA, local government is still bearing the heaviest burden of austerity.”

‘POSITION IS UNSUSTAINABLE’

Commenting on the draft settlement, Councillor Debbie Wilcox (Newport), WLGA Leader said: “The problem for local government is that we are now in a ‘war of attrition’. Services are wearing down to the point of collapse and the public are rightly growing frustrated in terms of paying council tax and yet seeing key community functions cut or closed.

“The whole position is unsustainable. Local authorities cannot go on to be expected to make the harshest of cuts whilst continuing to provide the same breadth and level of service; in short, something has got to give. “

‘WORKFORCE DESERVES A PAY RISE’

Councillor Emlyn Dole (Carmarthenshire), WLGA Plaid Cymru Group Leader said: “Welsh councils will still face severe financial pressures estimated to be over £200m for the next financial year alone due to demographic factors and workforce related pressures.

“I would urge the UK Government to use its Budget announcement in November to fully fund any relaxation of the pay cap. Every 1% increase in pay costs the public sector around £100m, and £35m of that is attributable to councils.

“Our workforce deserves a pay rise. In this context, local government funding must be more flexible and the transfer of nearly £100m of grants into the settlement is a positive step. I would urge Ministers to think about the other funding flexibilities for the other £700m in grants which put an additional administrative burden on the public services.”

UNDERFUNDED AND UNSUSTAINABLE

Councillor Hugh Evans OBE (Denbighshire), WLGA Independent Group Leader said: “The funding formula delivers a range of increases and decreases across the 22 local authorities. We need to make sure that the system takes account of the additional needs of providing services in communities with diverse needs and especially the additional costs of providing services in rural communities which are dramatically underfunded.”

Councillor Peter Fox OBE (Monmouthshire), WLGA Conservative Group Leader said: “Social services and education should be funded on equal terms with health, which means providing the £160m that both services need to stand still next year. There are also a range of preventative services within councils that will not survive unless the Welsh Government has a long hard look at the way it allocates money across the totality of public services. Ring-fencing small sums in the settlement for those services is like robbing Peter to pay Paul, as other services suffer.”

‘SERIOUS CASH INJECTION REQUIRED’

UNISON has also criticised the Welsh government’s budget for local authority spending as wholly inadequate. The trade union has warned thousands of jobs will be lost and local public services will be reduced or disappear completely because councils are under severe financial pressure.

UNISON also blasted Welsh Government’s failure to fund the implement of the Foundation Living Wage to lift thousands of council workers out of in-work poverty, something it says could have been achieved with a relatively modest injection of cash.

Dominic MacAskill, UNISON head of local government said: “Today’s news is grim indeed. People can’t understand why their library opening hours will have to be reduced or their youth club shut down in the name of austerity. Communities need quality local services otherwise they cease to be healthy and liveable places but councils are struggling to provide these and more – parks and leisure services, food hygiene and environment health services, on the meagre budgets Welsh Government has today granted.

“Savage spending cuts might be directed by Westminster Conservatives but the Welsh Government must see the lack of new money for local authorities in the announcement today will mean thousands more council jobs are lost and services at smaller councils might collapse altogether. Our warning couldn’t be starker: without a serious injection of cash, some councils will become unsustainable.”

Mr MacAskill added: “Public service workers will be incredibly frustrated their concerns are not being listened to. Welsh government has missed an opportunity to lift thousands of hard working council staff out of in-work poverty by failing to fund the Foundation Living Wage for all local government employees. They agreed this was necessary in the NHS and the Civil Service, why can’t they do it for all public service workers?”

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CADNO: Llanelli’s election outlook

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LET’S say this is a straightforward call.

If Nia Griffith doesn’t hold this seat by a health and hefty margin, Labour will be on course for the sort of national drubbing not suffered by the Party since the 1930s.

And, bearing in mind Llanelli was unflinchingly loyal to Labour even in those disastrous times, Cadno is confident in his prediction of a Labour hold.But that doesn’t mean this is a boring election.A return to Parliament for Nia Griffith is on the cards and the only fight worth talking about is who finishes several thousand votes behind in second.  
Llanelli’s rugby supporters – a byword for impartiality and their ability to see both sides of a referee’s decision – are a metaphor for Llanelli’s Brexit-supporting voters.

Those far-sighted electors see beyond the untold damage even the PROSPECT of Brexit has done to their constituency and the livelihoods of hundreds and still support trashing the local economy.This produces an interesting position. The Brexit Party, Limited, is fielding a candidate in Llanelli. Susan Boucher.

Cadno doubts you’ll have heard her name – even if you live in Llanelli. Ms Boucher is standing up for the values of Nigel Farage. So, readers, she stands for nothing at all.Having decanted Llanelli boy Rob Buckland to Swindon to sit as Conservative MP there, the Conservatives have returned the favour by parachuting-in Tamara Reay to build on the party’s distant second place in the 2017 election.Ms Reay wants to ‘Get Brexit Done’. As meaningless and fatuous a collection of syllables as Cadno has ever heard. You can’t imagine the voters of Llanelli backing Boris for PM, even by proxy. And while they might want to ‘Get Brexit Done’, Cadno cannot believe that even the most masochistic of voters will take one look at Llanelli, what a decade of austerity has done to it, and think: “We need more of this.” Not even Giles Morgan is that daft. Maybe.

At least in Llanelli, Brexit supporters’ votes will be split between a Limited company whose director is a coward and a charlatan and a party whose leader is a charlatan and a coward. It’s a tough choice for the true believers, but Cadno bets the Brexit Party finish a very poor fourth. They’re a busted flush.In the 2017 election, Plaid Cymru’s vote was squeezed – as were the votes of other small parties – by the big two.

Cadno does not quite see that happening to the same extent this time around; the Greens and Lib Dems have helped them with handing over their handful of votes to make sure that doesn’t happen. Before the last election, Mari Arthur was dropped on the local constituency party with all the effect of a stink bomb in an enclosed space. Long-standing members fled, retching. There is hope that Plaid Cymru can inch its way up to second place in the constituency. However, Cadno thinks getting too close will be self-defeating. 

Plaid once regarded Llanelli as a viable target for a Westminster seat. It isn’t. The best thing for Plaid would be to finish a distant and dismal second so that it can dedicate its (very) scarce resources to more winnable or sustainable Westminster territory and abandon the fantasy of winning UK Parliamentary seats in the former industrial areas of South Wales.

Plaid’s best hope is – and always will be Assembly elections – following which it can exert real influence over the executive decisions of the Welsh Government (maybe, one day, even form one). 

Plaid should leave the fantasy and gesture-driven politics to Labour and the Conservatives. Plaid needs to be realistic about the scope – and limits – of its ambition.

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First Minister agrees to investigate hold-up in new school

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THE FIRST MINISTER of Wales has agreed to make inquiries about a delay in the building of a new school in Llanelli. The Welsh Government called in the Ysgol Dewi Sant project earlier this year.

Mid and West AM Helen Mary Jones said:“I’d like to draw attention to the situation faced by pupils and staff at Ysgol Gymraeg Dewi Sant in Llanelli, which as the First Minister will know is Wales’s oldest Welsh-medium school, where publicly funded Welsh-medium education began. He may also recall that the situation faced by pupils and staff in the school is serious. Whole classes are being taught in corridors and the physical state of the building is extremely poor. Staff and pupils and parents were very grateful to receive funding through the twenty-first century schools programme, but the scheme has been called in by another part of Welsh Government due to issues in relation to the planning system and some concerns about flooding potential.

“I would not suggest for a moment, Llywydd, that I’d ask the First Minister to interfere in any way in the due process that needs to be gone through around the planning issue, but it is my understanding that the initial deadline for that decision to be made has passed, and I would like to ask the First Minister today to speak to the relevant Ministers—the Minister for Education, the Minister with responsibility for planning—so that the pupils and families and teachers in that school can be told when this process will be over, and with a view to ensuring that the Welsh Government’s proposed investment is not lost because of the delay in the planning system.”

First Minister Mark Drakeford, during questions in the Senedd said: “I thank Helen Mary Jones for that supplementary question and for drawing attention to the history of Dewi Sant school and the place it holds in the history of Welsh-medium education here in Wales. I’ll certainly make inquiries, as the Member says, not to interfere in any way in the process, but to make sure that information about it is properly known to those who have a direct interest in it.”

Speaking after the exchange in the Senedd chamber Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Helen Mary Jones added: “I’m glad I had the opportunity to raise concerns in the Senedd. I’m pleased that the First Minister appreciates the frustrations around this issue and has agreed to speak to the relevant Ministers to ensure there is no unnecessary delay.”

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Snap election builds in unfairness

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A SNAP General Election is unlikely to break the break deadlock, the Electoral Reform Society has warned
The ERS says results are likely to be ‘clear as mud’ when it comes to translating voters’ preferences, with ‘vote-splitting, wasted votes and unfair results on an industrial scale’.
One in four (24%) voters are planning on voting ‘tactically’ – rather than for their first choice – increasing the likelihood of random results under Westminster’s winner-takes-all voting system, according to BMG polling for the Society.
When the same question was asked before the 2017 general election, 20% of people said they’d opt for someone who was not their first choice.
Westminster’s voting system rests on a handful of marginals changing hands: “Eleven seats were won by less than 100 votes in 2017. North East Fife was held by the SNP by just two votes. Such are the vagaries of the system that the Conservatives could have won an absolute majority based on just 533 extra votes in the nine most marginal constituencies.
“A working majority could have been achieved on just 75 additional votes in the right places. Two very different outcomes based on less than 0.0017 per cent of voters choosing differently,” the Society’s 2017 election report noted.
Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “Few believe a third General Election in the space of four years will ‘fix’ the current impasse: the only agreement seems to be that there is yet more volatility coming our way, with parties hoping to gain from the chaos.
“It’s amusing to remember that Westminster’s voting system is supposed to deliver ‘strong and stable’ government. It has totally failed to do what it says on the tin, and no wonder – people are rightly shopping around, but this two-party system is totally unable to cope.
“This election is likely to see ‘tactical’ voting on a scale never seen before, alongside widespread ‘vote-splitting’ and candidates getting in on fractions of the vote.
“First Past the Post voting is now an engine of volatility, which could make the current problems even worse. We could see a ‘wrong winner’ election – where the biggest party did not win the most votes – another hung parliament, and wasted votes in the millions. It’s time to join other advanced democracies in backing a fair voting system where seats match votes.
“This must be the last election conducted using Westminster’s scandalously unfair electoral system. It’s time for Westminster catch up with the rest of the world, with proportional representation and an end to the disaster of winner-takes-all voting.
“Whatever the case, this election will be a ‘hold your nose’ ballot, with one in four feeling forced to vote tactically for their second or third choice.
“A snap election guarantees nothing but an unfair lottery for voters. Let’s build a democracy fit for the 21st century, with an electoral system that encourages cooperation, not gridlock.”
ERS analysis of the 2017 election found that millions of people’s votes were thrown on the electoral scrapheap. 68% of votes had no impact on the result – representing 22 million votes going to waste.
Professor Sir John Curtice told LBC today that this election is likely to see a very high number of votes for parties other than the traditional ‘big two’.
In June, he told the ERS: “There is little doubt that Britain’s traditional two-party system is facing its biggest challenge yet in the wake of the Brexit impasse. If that challenge persists it would seem inevitable that there will renewed debate about the merits of the first-past-the-post electoral system.”
The latest YouGov poll puts Labour and the Conservatives on joint support of 59% – far below their 82% reached in 2017.
The ERS is calling for a proportional voting system for Westminster, the Single Transferable Vote system used for Scotland’s local elections and elections in Ireland.
The warped nature of the system is reflected by the fact that in 2017 it took 43,000 votes to elect a Conservative MP, 49,000 for Labour, nearly 200,000 per Lib Dem and over 500,000 votes for the Greens’ single MP. It took just 28,000 votes per SNP MP and 29,000 per DUP MP. The SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrats support PR.

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