Thursday 26 February 2015

Mr James's Budget

There are occasions when you have to keep reminding yourself that elected councillors are supposed to be there to give a political lead, i.e. decide the shape and direction of policy, while the officers are supposed to implement what elected representatives have decided.

For years now in Carmarthenshire things have worked the other way round, and that was especially evident at this week's budget meeting, where Mark James once again completely dominated proceedings and made sure that he got his desired outcome.

Just in case anyone has forgotten, we have a council run by Labour in coalition with the Independents, and while Ed Miliband and Ed Balls bang on and on about the "cost of living crisis", what they delivered this week was nothing short of an attack on working families, courtesy of a few senior council officers who, as Kevin Madge never ceases to say, are doing "a wonderful job".

Pay more, get much less

One again, up goes council tax by 4.85%, way above inflation and way more than any pay increases most people in Carmarthenshire will remember.

Up goes the price of school dinners by much more than inflation, and up goes the price of a parking ticket by much more than any increase in the cost of living (20p across all bands). Rents for council houses will rise above inflation (4.3%). Some leisure facilities will close, and others will reduce their opening hours. The roads budget is once again being slashed, with the recent Government local authority performance stats showing that Carmarthenshire was ranked 20th out of 22 councils for road maintenance.

In social care the council aims to stop providing home care for the elderly, instead passing this work on to the tender mercies of private sector operators. Fewer frail and elderly people will be able get a placement in a care home.

School budgets will be slashed by £14 million for the period 2016-18 thanks to what the council believes will be rapidly falling numbers of pupils - rather at odds with the council's recently approved Local Development Plan which believes that the population of the county is set to rise significantly.

School Bus Charges

In come new charges for school transport for children aged 16 and over. These charges will, we are told, be phased in (i.e. introduced and then increased) over a period of years. Not clear is whether children in the GCSE year will have to pay once they turn 16, but abundantly clear is that anyone who stays on to sixth form will have to cough up.

The justification for this is that it is not compulsory to stay on at school after 16. So much for any idea that children should be encouraged to stay at school and gain qualifications and skills which will help them and the economy.

We are heading back to the days when some children will be forced to leave school as soon as possible because their parents cannot afford otherwise. And it is a Labour-run council taking us there.

Irrespective of what the council has negotiated with bus companies, the fundamental economics are that its costs the same, give or take a little diesel, to transport 30 children on a bus as it does to carry 40.

This scheme is not about saving money but raising revenue.

Cash Pile

Plaid Cymru's response to all this was that the council could use some of its £73.5 million reserve cash pile instead of hitting residents in every way possible. £6.2 million from the piggy bank would have meant no cuts, no council house rent rises and practically no council tax increase.

The £73.5 million in so-called earmarked reserves has doubled from £36 million in 2009, and the council's total reserves currently stand at £122 million, which is twice as much as is held by the much larger Cardiff council.

The Plaid amendment to the council's budget plans clearly rattled the chief executive who initially refused to allow the acting head of finance to comment on the proposals to use reserves, arguing that it would not be proper for an officer to respond to ideas put forward by "a political group". Despite being an officer himself, he appeared to be under no such restraint, and it was abundantly clear that he saw this as an attack on his budget.

Kevin Madge vacillated ineffectively, before the chief executive shoved the hapless chair of council to one side and called for a vote.

Labour and the Independents then rejected the Plaid amendment before joining forces once again to accept the budget proposals.

For the record, Labour's candidate for the Westminster elections, Calum Higgins, voted to implement the cuts and rent and council tax increases.

Leighton Andrews

Just three hours after this meeting took place, the Minister for Public Services issued a statement questioning the way in which Welsh councils were using their reserves. He said:

A situation where the Chief Finance Officer provides a statement to Members that ‘reserves are adequate and represent prudent financial management’, does not demonstrate to me sufficient opportunity for Members to consider and challenge the levels of reserves held.”

He went on: The evidence shows that in recent years, the levels of reserves held by Local Authorities have significantly increased.  Whilst it is prudent for Authorities to prepare for more challenging financial times, it is also reasonable to want to see evidence that Authorities are making financial decisions in the best interests of their communities.

Silent movie

Anyone wanting to watch the archived broadcast for themselves should be warned that the first 18-20 minutes of the meeting are silent, and so Meryl's stomach-churning eulogy for Dave Gilbert has been lost to posterity.

Also, anyone wanting to watch hear the original soundtrack without the English translation voice-over should be advised that that is not working either.


Anonymous said...

I can't get over this. Carmarthenshire seems to be led by a political who are either incompetent or worse.

We have a Tory Police Commissioner who seems intent on cutting vital services yet sees fit to cut the precept to the tune of less than a quid a week for most households in Carmarthenshire and a Labour led council who are content also to cut services to the most vulnerable whilst sitting on a pot of gold.

What gets me the most is this. I think the commissioner is being true to his class. He is a Tory and we can expect him to do what he does BUT for the Labour Party to behave as they do its just not forgivable. Implementing cuts when there are options, unlawful pension deals and also unlawful libel payments are just not socialist things go do.

I never thought I'd say this - I recommended to every Labour voter at the next election VOTE PLAID for at least a modicum of socialism cos you just Wont get it from our Labour Party. They should be suspended from the party - disgusting !!!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the 620 who voted for Labour last week are
happy about the 4.85% rise in tax?

Anonymous said...

Well anon. 21.25, they must be because Labour's Penny Edwards says she is "standing up for Hengoed" and presumably for her council tenant neighbours.

Anonymous said...

From what I have seen of the webcast, the sooner the WLGA recommendation for a presiding officer for these meetings is implemented the better. This meeting may as well have been chaired by the chief executive, at one point he even agues with the chair of how a vote went – outrageous.

Cyng / Cllr Alun Lenny said...

The fact is, the Labour-Independent administration are way out of their depth. They'd have trouble selling a budgie, let alone setting a budget! That's why they abdicate control to the officers and rubber stamp their proposals. It's truly scandalous that cuts and increased charges are imposed on the people of Carmarthenshire. Plaid say that spending just £6m of the £122m the council has in reserves would avoid all such austerity measures this year. Llafur sy'n arwain y cyngor (i fod), ond s'dim clem 'da nhw shwd i osod cyllideb. Mae'n sefyllfa warthus.

Anonymous said...

All I can say is that is a pathetic portrayal of the budget meeting. Totally Plaid biased wihout a modicum of objectivity, anywhere. Any respect, I had, for this blog has now completely gone save for the fact that you are a fine wordsmith. If Plaid had not pulled a last minute political stunt and actually genuinely engaged in the budget talks for the benefits of the residents of Carmarthen it would have been very welcome. As it is they play the 'not me to blame' game along with those at the assembly. In a way I wish they were in power at council or Assembly level for a short while so that they could no longer run away when things get tough.

Cneifiwr said...

Anon@17.48 Fan mail is always appreciated. Anyone who watches the archived webcast will be able to judge for themselves, but I doubt whether they will want to vote Labour after watching it.

Cyng/Cllr Alun Lenny said...

As a Plaid councillor I also wish we were in power Anon 17.48. We would shoulder the responsibilty of running the council for the good of the people. I'm afraid Labour have long forgotten what that means.

Anonymous said...

Roll on next County Council elections I say and I hope the voters have long memories and vote in Councillors who will fight for their constituents and not be manipulated.

Anonymous said...

Unlikely there will be any Cllrs in 2017 anon 17.59 just double the number of Assembley Representatives at five times the cost!

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