Wednesday 21 December 2011

Carry On on the Titanic

Showing in Carmarthen this Christmas, and set to run relentlessly for the next three years regardless of public demand, is this re-make of the old classic Carry On series. A catastrophic time for all the family!


Matron Meryl.............................................................Hattie Jacques
Captain "Skipper" James.............................................Kenneth Williams
First Mate Madge.......................................................Sid James
Nagging wife (Cllr Caiach)..........................................Joan Sims

It used to be said of Harold Wilson that if he had been captain of the Titanic, passengers would have been told not to worry because "we are just stopping to take on some more ice".

So it is that anyone who has been to County Hall in Carmarthen in recent times to observe a meeting of the full council will have heard Council Leader Meryl Gravell, chief executive Mark James and Labour leader Kevin Madge, taking every opportunity to tell councillors and the world at large how lucky we are to have such a wise and prudent county council. No matter what it is, Carmarthenshire is, they claim, the best in Wales, even generously giving its advice to lesser councils on how to do things. We have the best chief executive, we are told, and Kevin Madge never loses an opportunity to perform his favourite routine of "things were bad, but now they are getting better".

At the most recent meeting of the full council in early December, Meryl basked once again in tumultuous applause at the announcement that some quango or other had awarded her a cut-glass vase for her outstanding achievements in the field of social care.

Just a few days before this latest North Korean-style outpouring of gratitude to the Dear Leader, the Executive Board had met to consider a report proposing swingeing budget cuts and sharp increases in charges across the board. The detail can be found here.

Now fast forward to 22 December and a meeting of the Policy and Resources Scrutiny Committee, which will be considering the council's budget strategy for the next three years. The same headline figures are presented but without any of that unnecessary detail about cutting respite care; closing residential homes; lopping £30,000 off the budget for holidays for disabled children; cutting road maintenance to the bone; making 16-18 year-olds pay for school buses; closing libraries; slashing adult eduction or reducing care levels for children at risk of abuse.

In other words, unless members of the Scrutiny Committee have taken the time and trouble to read the relevant Executive Board reports, they will be discussing the strategy without being aware of the impact on all sorts of people across the county.

What we are left with are neat tables of figures which show, broadly, that central government grant funding is rising at well below the rate of inflation; income from car parking, etc. is down as the recession bites; and demand for some services, especially care for the elderly, is rising.

To combat this, the council is proposing a 4% rise in council tax for next year combined with cuts in services and staffing levels.

The cuts, which are termed "efficiency savings" are divided between "managerial" and "policy" proposals, with managerial efficiencies in 2012-13 totalling £6.9m and policy savings totalling £1.7m. The report says that managerial efficiencies will "result in no perceivable change to the overall level of service delivery but may in some instances affect quality of service provided."

Policy efficiencies, on the other hand, will "directly affect service delivery".

At first sight, you may think, that will be painless enough apart from throwing a few council bureaucrats out of a job, but think again. Nearly all of the jobs scheduled for the axe are frontline staff.

The other big ticket item in the council's finances is the capital budget, which is treated separately. This includes schools buildings, housing, "corporate", regeneration, etc., and is relatively modest compared with the revenue budget. For example, in 2012-13 revenue expenditure is forecast to reach £312m, while capital spending will total just over £40m.

On top of all this is the council's stock of debt which is now running at around half a billion pounds, and the cost of servicing that debt is currently about £16m.

The capital budget includes a number of big ticket items, including the highly controversial Dinefwr schools plan. Spending on just two projects - the Ffwrnes arts centre in Llanelli and the Dinefwr schools plan total £7.7m in 2012-13.

There is much to be said in favour of both, although there is vehement opposition in Llandovery to the proposed closure of their secondary school as part of the Dinefwr scheme.

Renovation and refurbishment of council-owned offices and properties is scheduled to take a further £3m in the coming year.

Set against the revenue efficiency savings (i.e. cuts) which will have a real impact on just about everybody in Carmarthenshire (if you drive a car, have children, if you are elderly, etc.), and devastating consequences for many of the most vulnerable, it is hard to see how continued high levels of spending on prestige projects can be justified.

To be fair to Carmarthenshire, their hands are tied somewhat by government restrictions which prohibit them from transferring funding from capital to revenue budgets. But we should also remember that they may only borrow against capital projects. £500 million of capital borrowing compared with revenue of around £315 million is a very clear indication of where this council's priorities have lain; and if only that capital had been wisely spent. Too many of the "investments" have been vanity schemes which have wasted huge amounts of money.

The problem is that Mark, Meryl and Madge still believe their own propaganda, even if nobody else does. Will Meryl hand back that vase? Not bloody likely. Will the offices at Ty Elwyn be refurbished next year at a cost of £500,000 while £30,000 is saved from respite holidays for desperate families? You bet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a very good summary of the CCC financa prposals. One would expect, in a healthy democracy where there had been major changes in circumstance since the representaives were elected ,that some form of public consultation was likely to be thought appropriate before chosing the areas of major cuts and especially before finalisaing the "programe of works" as regards the capital budget.
But no. Without meaningful analysis of alternatives or even a helpful overview of the current policy there appears little likelihood of any sensible policy change in response to the clear deterioration in the economy and the long term implications of reduced funding in local government.
Carmarthenshire Council is famous for never having a plan B and it is perhaps too much to hope that a major recession could actually produce a change in policy. I think the Authority will ignore the iceburg in the belief that if sinking is not an agreed option, it just won't happen.
Nagging wife