Friday 21 February 2014

A Good News Budget (I)

Earlier this week the Labour and Independent groups on Carmarthenshire County Council pushed through one of the harshest budget settlements in living memory, with swingeing cuts to frontline services, a 4.77% rise in council tax, job losses and sharp increases in charges.

If you read the statements put out by the authority, however, you would have been left with a very different impression. Care homes threatened with closure have been saved; there will be no charges for school transport for children over the age of 16 (at least not this year); the lollipop ladies have been saved and there will be no cuts in respite care for disabled children. All this thanks to our far-sighted local authority working on our behalf.

What the council has done is to talk about services which will not be cut (they will just be squeezed), while glossing over the bad news. And there is a great deal of bad news out there.

Before we dig into some of the detail, it is worth having a look at the budget process itself.


This kicked off with an invitation only event in the Ffwrnes Theatre in Llanelli. In addition to the elected councillors invitations went out to what the council is calling stakeholders. These were for the most part  media organisations and companies.

Not many of those invited actually attended, with those who stayed away including the BBC which felt that the terms and conditions being applied could compromise its editorial independence. The media were in the end represented by the three Local World titles (Carmarthen Journal, Llanelli Star and South Wales Evening Post) which in recent years have become little more than mouthpieces for council PR, plus Radio Carmarthenshire.

Just three companies attended:  Castell Howell (the catering wholesaler), Schaeffler (ball bearings and precision engineering) and Tata Steel.

Plaid Cymru, the largest political group on the council, boycotted the event but sent observers.

What was left, then, was a collection of Labour and Independent councillors (not all of them turned up either), a few journalists working for organisations which are little more than extensions of the council's press office, and three companies. Those were the stakeholders, and it is clear from the budget documentation that the views of this very unrepresentative group played a big part in deciding the priorities for cuts.

Tata Steel, for example, was strongly in favour of cutting trade union facilitation time, and it also felt that the Welsh language "should be supported in the workplace, but not to the detriment of front-line services" (i.e. cut it and leave it to the tender mercies of organisations such as Tata Steel).

Interestingly, the breakdown of responses shows that the "stakeholders" (dinosaur Independents, Labour plus Tata Steel) were quite strongly in favour of cutting support for the use of Welsh, whereas people in the 16-24 age group were strongly opposed.

The Ffwrnes "stakeholders" were presented with a list of 51 proposals for cuts to public services, and that list also went out to a public consultation.

The Consultation

The public who took part in the consultation found that the list was headed for some reason not by items which would save most money, but by soft targets. Top of the list were getting rid of trade union facilitation time and cutting support for the Welsh language. The savings to be achieved were miniscule in the big scheme of things, but very damaging to those being targeted. Someone seems to have calculated that by putting these two very small populist cherries at the top of the list, the public might be more inclined to support cuts for less popular proposals further down.

No attempt at political balance was made in the short, accompanying explanations. Cutting union facilitation time would not affect union rights, we were told, while the cuts aimed at the Welsh language included reducing "excess" translation costs.

Apart from making it a lot more difficult for the unions to represent their members, the cuts once again target the very meagre support the council provides to the Mentrau Iaith which carry out a lot of valuable work in promoting social cohesion as well as the language.

On some items we get glimpses of the frustration felt by some of those who responded. "Insufficient information to provide an informed response", we read. The same response could have been given to just about all of the 51 proposals.

Just like the Ffwrnes event, the public consultation resulted in a ranking of priorities for cuts, with scores being allocated to each item.


Top of the pops for cuts with the highest combined score from the consultations was the council's propaganda sheet, the Carmarthenshire News.

Not on the table was scrapping the paper completely and replacing it with an annual information sheet, as Plaid Cymru has proposed. What we will get is a reduction from 6 to 4 issues per year.

Despite being the most popular target for cuts, the summary of responses provided by the council is headed:
  • Carmarthenshire News is an essential source of local information
  • Ensures all residents, including digitally excluded and elderly, are kept abreast of latest developments & events
The document goes on to suggest that mitigation could include "further collaboration" with the Llanelli Star/Carmarthen Journal. No mention is made of collaboration with media outlets which have dared to criticise the council.

Collaboration also dovetails very neatly into one of the main strategies of the Local World group (owners of the Journal and the Star), which is to allow councils and other cash-rich organisations to publish their PR and propaganda in return for advertising revenue.

A mysterious press release

Now here's a funny thing. A few weeks back the Carmarthen Journal published a lengthy attack on Plaid Cymru's budget proposals. The newspaper said this was the "Council's response" to the Plaid proposals, but it was not otherwise attributed. What was abundantly clear was that it was written not by Kevin Madge, but the supposedly politically neutral council officers he has been so busy defending of late.

Incredibly the article claimed that printing an annual information sheet would cost more than publishing 6 full colour, 40-odd page editions of Carmarthenshire News every year.

The subject came up in this week's council meeting. Who had written the article, Cllr Cefin Campbell (Plaid) wanted to know.

Kevin Madge tried to play outraged of Garnant. It was wrong to blame the chief executive for this, he blustered.

Cllr Campbell pointed out that he had not said that; only that the chief executive's picture had appeared above it. Who had written the article?

Kevin Madge did not want to reply, but then stood to say that the "Carmarthen Journal had put it out there".

That is only true if you interpret "put it out there" to mean "publish". 

The truth of the matter was that it was written by someone in the chief executive's department and put out by the press office. Quite possibly with Kevin Madge's blessing.

Coming high up on the list of popular targets for spending cuts was nevertheless not a guarantee that the council would actually implement the proposals. 

One of the proposals which scored highly with the public (but unsurprisingly strongly opposed by council staff) was a plan to start charging council staff for car parking outside council offices. That, along with reducing respite care for disabled children, was dropped from the list of cuts to be implemented.

So much for the spin. The next piece will look at what is actually being cut, and one or two areas in which spending is set to rise sharply.


Anonymous said...

Ceredigion are doing exactly the same; closing small schools and a hike of 5% on the council tax. Plaid Run.

Anonymous said...

"Carmarthenshire news is an essential source of local
Information"the problem I have is I don't believe what's
In it.

Anonymous said...

Good one anonymous @ 14.47

Anonymous said...

Well, it is probably useful in that, if it says something, you can assume the opposite .....

Anonymous said...

Good one anonymous @ 14 47

Anonymous said...

Good point made.@16. 57

Anonymous said...

I usually like your blog Cneifiwr because ,whilst I understand you have Plaid in your DNA, you usually have an analysis of events rather than just a party political analysis of events.
There is no evidence anywhere that Plaid would be able to chuck a bit of fairy dust at the real difficulties about having less money and more demands on services and make it all better.

Anonymous said...

Anon 18.38

They couldn't do any worse that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

It may not be obvious that All the councils in Wales have had to cut services, hike up council tax because less money is coming from Cardiff and they had less money from Westminster due to the dire economic . foreign adventures bleeding us dry