At the end of 2011 the council published its budget proposals, and there were howls of protest at some of the cuts outlined. Those included inflation busting increases for school meals, charges for blue badge holders, a halving of support for Mentrau Iaith and the closure of the county's two museums.
If anyone wanted to create a smoke screen to push through much more serious cuts, they could not have picked four areas of spending more likely to generate headlines and noise. In the case of the school meals increase, reversing the proposal was only going to cost £34,000, so this was a particularly cost-effective piece of PR, as it would enable Meryl & Co. to claim that they had the well-being of families at heart, etc.
Blue badge holders, in the main elderly drivers, were clearly upset, and people who care about the Welsh language were up in arms about the halving of support for the Mentrau Iaith.
All of a sudden in January, after a put-up media campaign in which the Carmarthen Journal ran pictures of concerned-looking members of the Executive Board hearing pleas from young children to save the museums, the council's press office announced that these changes would not be going ahead, small-print: for the time being. There would be no increase in school meals, there would be no charges for blue badge holders, plans to close the museums had been deferred, and the Mentrau Iaith cuts were being "re-profiled" to come in over three years.
While all this was going on, a host of other shockers were waved through without comment and without so much as a squeak from the local press.
Here are just a few taken from a document setting out details of "managerial" and "policy" spending cutbacks as they affect school children. What follows are the main items listed under "policy" spending reductions.
- Post 16 school transport - the council will abolish free school travel for children aged 16+ from 1 September 2013. If you live in a rural area, as many of us do, expect to have to find a hefty amount of money to pay for the school bus once your child has turned 16. This will obviously affect many children in their GCSE year, as well as Sixth Formers.
- As from 1 April 2013 the council will remove fare paying bus services for children who live within the statutory walking distance to school.
- There will be a "progressive reduction" over three years in After School clubs, Play Wales and early years education.
- The council will reduce its spend on Education Welfare Officers, meaning that more responsibility will be placed on individual schools to deal with problems like truancy.
- There will be a reduction in the service to families with blind and deaf children (weigh this spiteful £15,000 cut against the millions the council throws at its pet projects).
- There will be a reduction in child psychologist support.
- The schools music scheme is being scrapped.
- There will be a massive cut in the Athrawon Bro scheme of Welsh-medium teaching support.
- Although the council allocated an extra £34,000 to school meals in 2012/13 to avoid an increase in charges, it plans to cut £150,000 from the service over the following two years.
- £300,000 is due to come off special education in 2014/15.
Some of these cuts have come in this year, and the rest will follow over the next 2 years.
Reversing at least some of the cuts is not impossible, but Meryl Gravell and Kevin Madge have made sure that there will be precious little left in the kitty after all of their PR stunts and pet white elephants have been paid for.
A very good example of what these cuts will mean for rural areas is highlighted in Pat Racher's blog here.
Pat is standing as Plaid candidate in Llandovery, where local parents will no doubt be surprised that their existing Independent councillors forgot to tell parents about the school bus time bomb.