Friday 3 February 2012

As if by magic

Signs that the next council elections are looming are coming thicker and faster here in Carmarthenshire. Carmarthenshire News, the mouthpiece of the ruling junta, has even more of a feel-good factor about it than usual. The latest edition has just two front-page stories: £151m extra for schools, it screams, reporting that the county has secured £87m of funding from the Welsh Government to fund the building of new schools, with the rest coming from the county itself.

Of course this is good news in the main, although some of the projects are deeply controversial. The people of Llandovery, for example, would actually like to keep their secondary school, but the council has decided that children from the town and surrounding villages are to be bussed to Llandeilo. The article, which quotes a gushing Meryl Gravell, doesn't mention this. Neither does it mention that one of the reasons for some of the new school buildings is that a good many small village schools are being closed and flogged off, with small children being forced to take what for them will be long bus journeys. The latest primary schools to face the axe are in Capel Cynfab, near Llandovery, and Rhydcymerau near Llanybydder.

Another point forgotten by Pravda is that Carmarthenshire is only one of 22 Welsh local authorities, and that they are all getting funding for new schools too.

Given almost equal prominence is a second story, Let's get behind 'our' Dai Greene. Dai comes from Llanelli, and has high hopes of a medal in the English Olympics.

The whole of Carmarthenshire is being urged, the rag tells us, to get behind him. It does not tell us who is doing the urging (Meryl? Mark James?) or what we can do to support Dai, apart from sending an e-mail to an account beginning "listeningtoyou".

Cneifiwr wishes Dai all the best, and just hopes that thoughts of Carmarthenshire County Council don't enter his head as he gets into his stride.

But, look! Nasty Carmarthenshire County Council is becoming nice Carmarthenshire County Council in other unexpected ways too. Caebrwyn reported that all of a sudden the ludicrous and probably illegal restrictions placed on visitors to council meetings have been lifted. As if by magic!

It may be, of course, that the chief executive, who apparently imposed the restrictions, has had an attack of remorse. Perhaps he wanted to throw a small olive branch to the bloggers as a gesture of goodwill. Or just perhaps the council leadership decided that it would rather not have any negative press coverage in the run-up to the elections, such as:

Carmarthenshire County Council forces schoolchildren to sign legal undertakings before being allowed to observe council meetings.


Council throws pensioner out of County Hall for refusing to sign a legal undertaking

However, within days of announcing this change through an FOI response, the Press Office has taken to posting comments on Caebrwyn's blog to warn the public, like the naughty schoolchildren we are, that "we" will reimpose the restrictions if anyone misbehaves by trying to film or otherwise record any part of a meeting.

But magic seems to be back in vogue at the moment, and for the most spectacular trick of all, we need to take a look at the budget.

A few short weeks ago we were all staring at the abyss, with the council's officers recommending huge cuts in spending and increases in charges, along with a 4% rise in council tax.

But, abracadabra, simsalabim....and Meryl has pulled a whopper of a rabbit out of the hat. Yes, somehow all of the essential cuts needed in areas such as respite care, museum closures, etc. are no longer needed (yet), and council tax will rise by just 1.97%.

The latest proposals are set out in a very poorly produced set of reports. Tables of figures are presented without headings, so that you don't know what the numbers refer to. Other tables are shot to pieces, with a scatter gun of random numbers and % signs dotted around in acres of empty space. Some of the editing seems to have been undertaken with a chainsaw and a heavy duty welder.

What we can see, though, is that there has been a modest re-arrangement of the deck chairs, with a few PR-sensitive items taken out, at least temporarily (such as the museum closures). Closure of a children's respite care home has been stopped; school meals will not be increased next year; plans to charge holders of Blue Badges have been put on hold; Mentrau Iaith, one of the council's main vehicles for promoting the use of Welsh, will now see its funding cut by 50% over three years, as opposed to one year (readers may recall how the current issue of Carmarthenshire News runs an article boasting that the county can teach other less enlightened nations how to promote languages).

A little bit of good news, then, but things become a lot more gloomy when you peek under the bonnet at some of the detail. A lot of council staff are facing the boot, pay freezes, downgrades and reductions in working hours. Quite a lot of that will have an effect on services, of course.

Although the museums have been saved temporarily, the council is now singling out libraries as one of the main targets, along with the schools' music programme. Libraries will have reduced opening hours, the staff face pay cuts or job losses, and the council wants to transfer as many as possible to the voluntary sector. The schools music programme is being scrapped, although somehow the council expects the schools to pick up the pieces.

Staying in education, the council is keen to start charging schools for using facilities such as swimming pools and leisure centres. This is the same council that claims that healthy living and tackling child obesity is a priority.

Some of the cuts are just mean. £33,000 is to be saved by reducing respite breaks for disabled children.

As before, we will see huge cuts in road maintenance, coastal defences, etc.

On and on, the list goes, but even after all that, there is a black hole. Let's see what the accountants have to say.

Cneifiwr has had many encounters with accountants in his time. They peer at you over half-moon spectacles and run bony fingers over columns of numbers before telling you that your latest scheme may be just a little unwise (Accountantese for sheer bloody lunacy and dangerously reckless). Or as the council's chief beancounter has it:

Generally speaking whilst the use of reserves to support annual budgets should not be summarily discounted, it must be treated with caution. Funding on-going expenditure from such funds merely defers and compounds difficult financial problems to the following year. 

In deliberating this point however, members must bear in mind any inherent risks that may be built into the budget strategy. These include:

- Challenging Efficiency targets

- Single Status

- Future inflation/interest rates

- Current economic climate continuing

- Additional pressure on demand lead Services

- Overestimation of the future settlements.

Let's translate this. What he means is that in order to square the circle, the council is going to have to plunder its reserves, leaving them at "below what is normally considered a prudent level" (as we can read elsewhere). At the same time, he is saying, we've probably been a bit optimistic about some of these forecasts, which may well come back and bite us in the bum.

But with an election to fight, poor old Prudence has been told to go for a long walk. When she is allowed back into County Hall after the elections and the party is over, there will be a big mess to clean up.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Da iawn Cneifiwr.