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‘Illegal’ budget amendments voted down

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Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 13.31.42A YEAR ago, a coalition-led Carmarthenshire County Council voted against an alternative budget proposed by the opposition party, which aimed to avoid cuts to frontline services by taking money from specified earmarked reserves which were perceived to contain a surplus.

This year, Cllr David Jenkins was the person presenting the council’s revenue budget strategy, while former Council Leader Jeff Edmunds, who was the Executive Board member for finance in 2015, proposed the use of reserves to mitigate cuts – specifically to education.

Cllr Jenkins said that the proposed budget ‘reflected the economic climate in the country today.’

He stated that the original planning had been based around a 3.3% reduction in the Welsh Government grant, and that planning had been hampered by the lack of any medium term plan by the WG.

“Once again we only received a scheme for one year, but the expectation is that the unprecedented reduction in local authority spending will continue,” he added.

“All commentators suggest the reductions will continue – austerity will be the norm for the future.”

Cllr Jenkins said he was pleased the cuts had been less than expected, but pointed out that each percent by which the WG funding was reduced amounted to £2.5m.

He explained that certain areas were recommended for reconsideration by the Executive Board as a result. This included removing proposed reductions in flood defence spending, cleansing services and environmental enforcement, and the deferral of home to college transport charges until 2018-19. An increase to the cost of Meals on Wheels was also phased over three years, and a proposed £50,000 reduction in short breaks and respite for disabled children and young people was withdrawn.

In addition, £50,000 was made available to youth services for safeguarding work, and it was agreed that £200,000 would be used for borrowing, which would fund £2.4m of infrastructure work.

Cllr Jenkins also said that proposed cuts to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau had been withdrawn until a third sector review had been completed.

“It is important to have continuity of CAB services in the short term,” he added.

A 3.85% increase in B and D council tax was also recommended.

When introducing his proposed amendments, Labour leader Jeff Edmunds said that even in times of austerity ‘it doesn’t have to be all about cuts and reductions – we need to think outside the box.’

Introducing his amendments, Cllr Edmunds said that councillors should vote ‘with their consciences and principles.’

One of the most significant amendments suggested was the proposed ‘cuts’ to the Delegated School Budget, which he suggested be deferred for one year.

Cllr Edmunds said: “I am not prepared, and the Labour group is not prepared, to put at risk the education of our children.’ “This cut would be devastating, we should not be looking at the next election,” he added, suggesting that it would create unemployment.

“I am sure that most of you in this chamber are school governors and have been tasked and faced with these cuts and the impact it’s going to have on our children,” he added.

Cllr Edmunds also suggested that certain services, including grounds maintenance, be brought back inhouse and refigured.

“We have five grounds maintenance areas, we need this brought to one area, then economies of scale will come into play,” he added.

He also said that the workforce could be ‘upskilled’ to include tackling road repairs in winter, when the grass stopped growing.

His third proposal was that reserves should be spent in a ‘prudent’ way. Cllr Edmunds claimed that if £10m was taken from reserves, it could be spent on building 130 new council homes, using in-house staff, which would create revenue through rental.

Responding, Cllr Jenkins queried what the impact on the council tax precept would be if these plans were introduced – something Cllr Edmunds didn’t mention.

He said that as a governor of two schools, he was aware that management teams had been working in the assumption that there would be a 3.3% cut, rather than a ‘standstill’ budget, and added that the education and finance departments had been working closely with headteachers.

Cllr Jenkins also said that school budgets had been ‘protected for a number of years.’

“Between 2010 and 2017, the schools budget increased by 8% in real terms; at the same time the highways budget was reduced by 27%,” he added.

He was in ‘total disagreement’ about Cllr Edmunds’ capital plan, and in terms of grounds maintenance, pointed out that the problem had existed since the Labour/ Independent administration was in charge.

Chief executive Mark James pointed out that a ‘standstill budget’ was being proposed for education. However, this was later queried by Cllr Sian Caiach, who pointed out that it amounted to a £3.4m real-terms cut.

Cllr Alun Lenny took exception to Cllr Edmunds’ description of the capital programme as ‘vanity projects.’

“Is a new care home in Llanelli a ‘vanity project?’” he asked, before listing many of the proposed works, including the renovation of Glanamman Industrial Estate and the Carmarthen-Llandeilo cycle route.

“These are example of Carmarthenshire looking to the future,” he added.

Executive Member for Housing Councillor Linda Edwards asked how 130 homes could be created for around £75,000 each.

“It is a great pity you didn’t consider this when building bungalows in Kidwelly which cost £160,000 each, she added.

Cllr Edmunds was asked how he would fund the schools budget amendment. After suggesting that, when Expected Voluntary Redundancies (EVR) were factored in, then the savings would only amount to around £1.9m, he suggested a 10p per week band D council tax raise in addition to using some of the £7 . 5m ‘saved’ by the WG grant. He also suggested taking £0,5m out of other departments’ budgets, and suggested that saving in certain areas, including grounds maintenance, could be made this year.

He emphasised that the ‘cuts’ to the school budget were only being deferred for a year to assess how they affected education.

“At the end of the day, if all else fails, take it out of reserves –it’s a oneoff,” he added.

However, Chief Finance Officer Chris Moore said that the budget must be balanced: “ The budget must be very precise about what it contains. If we were to pass this [Cllr Edmunds’ amendments] we wouldn’t be able to come up with a balanced budget.

Mr Moore pointed out that EVR money was overspent this year, but there were no concrete figures. However, assuming that this would cost between £500,000 and £1m, this would not be nearly enough, and the council tax increase would bring another £400,000.

Mr Moore added that ‘any comment about using reserves is unsustainable on determining a medium term plan’

“There are substantial sums we couldn’t fund from balances, and at the moment you haven’t brought forward alternatives that balance, and I would not advise we support it, because it is illegal,” he added.

This echoes what was said to Cllr Jenkins in 2015, when Mr Moore said: ““the above proposal could only achieve a one-off saving, as reserves could only be applied once and would merely delay until Year 2.

“The impact of having to deliver the necessary savings required which could lead to a potential Council Tax increase in excess of 10% to achieve a balanced budget in year two.

“The Council’s Medium Term Financial Business Plan would therefore become unsustainable unless further use for the savings was identified.”

Cllr Edmunds’ amendments were defeated by 17 votes to 44, with the original budget being approved by around the same majority.

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Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, dies aged 99

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The Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen’s ‘strength and stay’ for 73 years, has died aged 99.

Prince Philip’s health had been slowly deteriorating for some time. He announced he was stepping down from royal engagements in May 2017, joking that he could no longer stand up. He made a final official public appearance later that year during a Royal Marines parade on the forecourt of Buckingham Palace.

Since then, he was rarely seen in public, spending most of his time on the Queen’s Sandringham estate in Norfolk, though moving to be with her at Windsor Castle during the lockdown periods throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and where the couple quietly celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary in November 2020. He also celebrated his 99th birthday in lockdown at Windsor Castle.

The duke spent four nights at King Edward VII hospital in London before Christmas 2019 for observation and treatment in relation to a “pre-existing condition”.

Despite having hip surgery in April 2018, he attended the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle a month later and was seen sitting beside the Queen at a polo match at Windsor Great Park in June. He and the Queen missed Prince Louis of Cambridge’s christening in July 2018, but he was seen attending Crathie Kirk near Balmoral in August, and driving his Land Rover in the surrounding Scottish countryside in September.

It is expected that flags on landmark buildings in Britain will be lowered to half-mast as a period of mourning is announced.

The First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford has expressed his sadness on the news of the death of His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh and offered condolences to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the Royal family on behalf of the Welsh Government.

He said: “It is with sadness that we mourn the death of His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh. Throughout his long and distinguished life, he served the crown with selfless devotion and generosity of spirit.

We offer our sincere condolences to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, his children and their families on this sad occasion.

He will be missed by the many organisations that he supported as Patron or President over many decades of service”.Andrew RT Davies, the Leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Senedd, has led tributes to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, whose death was announced today.

In light of the sad news from Buckingham Palace, campaigning has been paused with immediate effect.

Mr Davies said: “This is a very sad day for the United Kingdom.
“The Duke of Edinburgh led a remarkable life, excelled himself with his career in the Royal Navy, was the strength and stay to Her Majesty The Queen, and has left a legacy to the nation through the Duke of Edinburgh Award.

“Dutiful, devoted, and diligent, his like will never be seen again, and Welsh Conservatives offer their deepest condolences to The Queen, and the rest of the Royal Family.”

Adam Price, leader of Plaid Cymru said: “On behalf of Plaid Cymru, I send my condolences to Her Majesty the Queen and her family. Many young people in Wales will have benefited from the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme, a reflection of many decades of his public service. Thoughts are with the Royal Family at this time.”

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Fire Chief’s pay being formally investigated

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THE TERMS and salary of the re-employment of a Chief Fire Officer for Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service (MAWWFRS) are being formally investigated, The Herald can reveal.

We have previously reported on the re-employment of Chief Fire Officer Chris Davies following his retirement.

Cllr Gordon Walker, a former firefighter and Fire Authority member, officially raised a complaint with The Welsh Fire Minister and Auditor General for Wales regarding the terms of re-employment for the Chief Fire Officer and has been calling for an investigation since last year.

Mr Walker had written to the Fire Authority and MAWWFRS on numerous occasions asking for a review on the situation, however after failed attempts, Mr Walker sent his concerns to the Auditor General for Wales.

The issues that have been highlighted relate to the Chief Fire Officer’s pay and the policy regarding re-employment following retirement.

Chief Fire Officer Chris Davies, who retired from the service a number of years ago, has since been re-employed by Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service in a more senior role.

Due to legislation in accordance with the Authority’s Policy on Re-employment of Retired firefighters, following voluntary retirement employees may be re-engaged and have their pensions abated.

However, this will not normally exceed a one year fixed term contract to retain specialist skills or knowledge, this will not normally exceed a one year fixed term contract.

Stating section 4.4 of the policy it clearly states ‘An individual will be re-employed on the same level of basic pay pertaining to the role they hold on retirement’.

A source within the fire service told us how Chief Fire Officer, Chris Davies, despite taking voluntary retirement and receiving a lump sum payment, has been re-employed by MAWWFRS on a salary that is almost £20,000 higher than his former basic pay.

Despite government legislation that says they should be re-employed for no longer than a one year contract, Chris Davies has been re-employed in his current role for five years.

As of now there is still no succession plan in place to replace Chris Davies with MAWWFRS.

The Auditor General for Wales have confirmed that they will be running a full investigation into the salary and the terms surrounding the re-employment of Chris Davies as Chief Fire Officer.

Speaking to The Herald, Gordon Walker said: “I have put my complaint in and I can confirm that we are awaiting the results of the investigation.”

Gordon has been campaigning relentlessly to have more transparency on the re-employment of retired fire service employees, especially those re-engaged on a rank senior to that on which they left.

A spokesperson for MAWWFRS said: “Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service is aware of the allegations made by a Member of our Fire and Rescue Authority and we can confirm that we are currently working with Audit Wales as part of their investigation.

“It would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.”

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Drakeford outlines road to normality

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PUBS and restaurants can reopen outdoors on April 26, the Welsh government has said.

Outdoor attractions can also open from that date.

The changes will come into force provided coronavirus cases remain low.

Non-essential retail and all other close contact services will also reopen on April 12, as well as travel between Wales and the rest of the UK.

The announcements come before a planned review from First Minister Mark Drakeford on Thursday (Apr 1), which is being held a day early because of the Easter weekend.

He is also expected to say that gyms can re-open sometime in May, alongside allowing up to 30 people to take part in outdoor sport.

Outdoor attractions are set to reopen April 26 and ministers could also allow gyms and leisure centres to open for individual training “by early May”, alongside organised outdoor activities for up to 30 people.

Both the Welsh Conservatives and Plaid Cymru said gyms should be allowed to reopen immediately.

Mr Drakeford will set out a “series of measures” to take Wales into Level 3 by 17 May, “subject to public health conditions remaining favourable”.

Pubs, bars and restaurants have been pleading with ministers to give them dates so they can prepare to reopen.

While parts of Wales’ lockdown have eased quicker than elsewhere in the UK, the Welsh government has been reluctant to set out a full list of when different sectors will reopen.

It has been critical of the London Government for aiming to end all rules on social contact by 21 June at the earliest – Mr Drakeford has said that was ‘very optimistic’.

Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies

Welsh Conservative Senedd leader, Andrew RT Davies said: “Welsh Conservatives believe gyms across Wales should be reopened for the good of people’s mental and physical well-being.

“Two months ago, Labour said it would be a priority when it came to easing restrictions, but it’s been another broken promise from ministers. This should be corrected.

“And given the progress we’ve made on case rates and vaccination, we also believe consideration should be afforded to the reopening of outdoor hospitality in Wales.

“Labour ministers have lifted travel restrictions, but it’s created other issues such as a lack of public toilets, littering and anti-social behaviour.

“Some of the scenes over recent days have been concerning and ministers should see licensed, regulated businesses as part of the solution, instead of the problem.

“Welsh Conservatives have provided a detailed roadmap for families, workers and businesses across Wales and Labour should listen to our calls and do the same.”

Adam Price: Labour must explain why they’ve taken so long to give businesses certainty

Plaid Cymru’s Leader, Adam Price MS, said: “The Labour Government must explain why it has taken them so long to provide businesses with greater certainty on when they can expect to reopen. Having been closed for so long, the least they deserve is more time to prepare.

“While this news offers hospitality a glimmer of hope, it will be a while yet before the sector can fully re-open. Labour has a duty to provide extra financial support to help those businesses to get back on their feet – increasing the pot of cash that’s available to businesses.

“Time and again, hard-working Welsh businesses that form the backbone of our economy have been let down and left behind by this Labour government – the very least they can do is to dig deep and support key sectors of the Welsh economy.

“Meanwhile, gyms should be able to safely re-open now – not least to help with people’s wellbeing and mental health which has suffered so much during the last few months.”

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