Monday 28 July 2014

Doom and gloom

In his latest monthly message to council staff in Y Gair, the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council tackles spending cuts and local government reorganisation, before ending with a brief mention of the National Eisteddfod.

It's worth taking a closer look at each of these in turn.

Spending cuts

Whereas Welsh councils had previously been told to budget for a 1.5% cut in funding from the Welsh Government for 2015-16, the likelihood is that they will now face a reduction of up to 4.5% next year, with similar reductions in the years after that.

In the run-up to the UK general election, Tory attacks on Labour's management of the NHS in Wales have hit home, and Carwyn Jones is planning to divert resources away from local government services to shore up the creaking health service.

The calculation is that "Labour boosts health spending" will stick in voters' minds more than headlines about cuts to council services. We'll see.

Mark James reckons that the next round of spending reductions will translate into cuts of between £45m and £60m over the next three years for Carmarthenshire. 

What is not yet clear is whether the Welsh Government will continue to protect education from spending cuts. Given the very negative headlines about education standards, it is hard to see Carwyn Jones taking the knife to schools budgets as well, which will mean that spending cuts will fall disproportionately hard on everything else: social services, roads, libraries, public health and the environment to name but a few.

On top of that there will be job losses, with Carmarthenshire planning another round of voluntary redundancies in the autumn, and the prospect of compulsory job losses after that. 

You don't need a degree in economics to work out that cuts to services and many thousands of job losses will drag down any recovery in the Welsh economy over the next few years, but outside Wales nobody really gives a damn.

And so as the countdown to the next general election begins, expect Labour to trot out its usual mantra about "sending a message to Westminster". The trouble with that is that Labour has signed up to George Osborne's spending plans and the result would be same under Tweedle-Cameron or Tweedle-Milliband.

As you can read here, "an attempt to commit Labour to abandoning coalition spending plans for 2015-16 was heavily defeated" at a closed meeting of the party's national policy forum last week.

As Milliband and Balls see it, the way out is "big reform, not big spending". And that is just what Carwyn Jones is planning to do with his reorganisation of local government. Fewer councils will mean more efficient councils perhaps, but council mergers are three to five years down the line, and budget cuts are happening now.

Local Government Reorganisation

Carwyn Jones's attempt to reorganise local government in Wales could fairly be described as botched before it has even started.

Following publication of the Williams Commission's report, the First Minister set a goal of getting cross-party consensus on reform by Easter so that the process could move swiftly ahead. The first problem for Carwyn was that he did not have consensus within the Labour Party: getting rid of some of the Labour baronies in the south and the forcible expulsion of apparatchiks from the gravy train was never something they were going to agree to.

To nobody's surprise, the Welsh Local Government Association came out against the proposals as well.

Easter came and went, and there was no agreement.

As an incentive to try to get the ball rolling, Local Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths, recently suggested that the Welsh Government could legislate to delay local government elections by another year until 2018 for those councils which opted for early merger with neighbouring authorities. As it is, the next round of council elections had already been put back a year to 2017 to avoid a clash with elections to the Welsh Assembly, which had in turn also been put back a year because of the UK general election.

It remains to be seen whether holding out the prospect of another bonus year of special responsibility allowances before having to face voters is enough to swing it for members of council cabinets the length and breadth of Wales.

Overall, the number of councils in Wales is set to fall from 22 to 12, with Carmarthenshire being one of the few which continue as before.

Set against the recommendations of the Williams Commission and the goals described by Carwyn Jones as he responded to questions in the Senedd last week, Carmarthenshire's survival looks a little odd because
in any list of councils which have hit the headlines because of failings in scrutiny and accountability in recent years, Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Caerphilly would occupy the top slots.

Leanne Wood, the Plaid leader, pointed out the importance the Williams Commission attached to scrutiny and accountability.

The First Minister agreed with her, and recalled that when there were just 8 councils, including Dyfed, there had been a very high level of scrutiny. Fewer councils would mean fewer, better councillors more capable of carrying out their responsibilities, he said, adding for good measure:

I think that it is right to say that, for some local authorities, certainly, the impression has been given that the officers have been in the driving seat and members have not been as proactive as they might have been in terms of scrutiny. That will be important.

Despite that, Carmarthenshire will continue as before with its complement of 74 councillors, including all those Labour and Independent backbenchers who rarely if ever speak but always loyally vote as instructed.
Cllr Anthony 'Whitey' Davies (Ind., Llandybie) was first elected in 2007, but has yet to get round to making his maiden speech. Neither has Cllr Theressa Bowen (Ind. but elected in 2012 as a Labour councillor for Llwynhendy).

Not to mention Cllr Meryl Gravell who speaks often, usually to tell us that it is "always right to defend the officers". No matter what.

Council leader Kevin Madge was cock-a-hoop when "Welsh" Labour's Executive Committee recently announced that Carmarthenshire would remain as a standalone authority, and the council's press office duly churned out a press release welcoming the news.

But if Kevin Madge is celebrating, his boss in County Hall seems less sure about Carmarthenshire's prospects in the longer term.

In his latest sermon in Y Gair, the newsletter which goes out to all 9,000 (soon to be rather less) staff, the chief executive writes:

"The Welsh Government have now responded to the Williams Commission.  The Welsh Government have accepted that there should be fewer Councils in Wales.  They consider that the current 22 Councils ought to be reduced to no more than 12.  On the maps they have produced Carmarthenshire is one of only two Councils that will survive as a stand-alone Council.  Swansea is the other.  Powys will be merged with the Powys Local Health Board.  All other Councils will be merged.  Given the catastrophic budget cuts we are facing, being left to end up as the smallest Council in Wales, may not be the best financial option!  However, the timescale for the proposed implementation of all this is 2019/20, so frankly, it is the least of our worries at this time."

Siarad Cymraeg

And finally, Mr James looks forward to the National Eisteddfod, which is this year being hosted by Carmarthenshire. According to unconfirmed rumours, Mr James will be presiding over the first day as honorary president, presumably in recognition of all that he and Meryl Gravell have done for the language over the last 10-15 years, in the same way that President Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong Un have advanced the cause of parliamentary democracy.

Despite agreeing to learn Welsh when he was appointed chief executive, Mr James's knowledge of the language does not seem to extend to much more than reading out "ymddiheuriadau am absenoldeb" (apologies for absence) at meetings.

But never despair, at this rate he might just about qualify for Learner of the Year the next time the Eisteddfod comes to Carmarthenshire, probably in about 2044.

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