Tuesday 23 February 2016

Budget Day in County Hall

The council's budget finally made it's tortuous way to the annual rubber stamp at today's gathering of our elected members.

As I have already mentioned (there are several blogposts since the proposals started simmering on the hob last November) a few concessions were made following the better-than-expected deal from Cardiff (£7.9m better) and today's offering was to save Citizens' Advice from cuts 'for the time being'.

Last year we remember Plaid's Dai Jenkins, in opposition, asking that a small amount of reserves be used to stop some of the frontline cuts, he was told, by officers, that it couldn't be done. This year it was the turn of the Labour opposition to put forward alternative proposals and to be told, by officers, that it couldn't be done. Hands always tied..

The whole thing can be seen on the webcast but perhaps the most significant decision today involved the cuts to the school budget. This amounts to over £15m over three years, having been eased slightly (by £2.1m) with some extra cash from the Welsh Government.

Labour's Jeff Edmunds proposed that this cut be deferred for a year so that the full effect could be assessed and quantified. It is an alarming amount after all. He said that many of his members were school governors and the news on the ground was that education was going to suffer. Plaid stated that many of them were also school governors and as far as they were concerned the schools were fine with it all.

Cllr Edmunds proposed 10p on the council tax and some movement from reserves to fund the education cut for this year. He also proposed that a cut of £200k from Special Educational Needs education be shelved and suggested that £200k be used to fund £10m borrowing to build 130 council homes.

Plaid responded by trotting out their recent headline strategy of creating 1000 'affordable' homes in the next five years. An admirable aim but one which is heavily reliant on private funding, as well as over-the-rate-of-inflation council rent increases for the next five years.

Disappointingly, Labour's Cllr Edmunds dallied around the question of privatisation of services, I would have expected him to be firmly opposed, even if just in principle. Instead he waffled on about the 'balance' and the council 'taking the lead'. Difficult though, I suppose, when Plaid are taking forward and embracing the privatisation agenda started by his own administration.

Anyway, the Director of Corporate Services and the chief executive were having none of it, the 'books wouldn't balance' they said, just like they said last year with Plaid's proposals. Luckily, Mr James was on hand to explain that the cut of £3.4m wasn't a cut at all, oh no, it was a 'standstill figure', the actual funding level would stay the same. Though of course, to the rest of humanity, and the schools, this is actually a cash cut in real terms. Next year it's £6m and the year after, another £6m of cuts, which aren't cuts...

Mr James warned councillors that if they voted to accept Cllr Edmunds amendments they would then be voting through an illegal budget, and he would have to instruct the Director of Corporate Services to stop them. Couldn't have an illegal budget could we? We can have illegal payments though...

The time then came to a recorded vote on Cllr Edmunds amendments which were all, to Cllr Caiach's consternation (abruptly dismissed by the Chair and chief exec)) collected together 'en bloc'. In the event the amendment was lost by 17 votes to 44 so we were denied the spectacle of Mr James dealing with illegal budget setting. The budget, as it originally stood, then went through. At least he didn't have to resort to the local press this year to dismiss the opposition budget.

The five year Capital budget was up next and, with, undoubtedly, forthcoming white elephants in mind, Cllr Caiach asked what exactly this 'Wellness centre', which they were committing themselves and lots of ££££ to, actually was.

The Executive Board Member for Social Care and Health (or dare I say 'Wellness'), Cllr Jane Tremlett duly responded and it turned out that she didn't know either...'diagnosing problems in a modern way' she mumbled.

Fortunately, again, the chief executive was there to give a little speech about this wonderful project. It was the biggest he'd ever been involved in, bigger even than Carmarthen Town centre...oddly he didn't mention the, er, Boston Stadium or the Parc y Scarlets Stadium... Anyway, not only was this the biggest project but it involved the University, Hywel Dda Health Board, Sir Terry Matthews, and of course Meryl. The plan, called the Arch project, would house research, treatment and medical facilities at a 'very very high level'

Although he couldn't say more at the moment (hush hush), a press release was already on it's way for tomorrow's papers, so he might as well say it anyhow (forget the hush hush). I'm not sure quite what the revelation was but I think it entailed funding for a scoping document backed by no less than three Ministers.

(update - the press release seemed to concentrate on the fact that this was, er, a big project, with pictures of Sir Terry and Meryl, accompanied with a video of Emlyn Dole rambling unintelligibly about internet coasts and digital power from a crib sheet)

I hope it all works out and the private funds flood in as it is clear from our ambulance queues, loss of A and E at Llanelli Hospital and our financially struggling health boards (Hywel Dda predicted to be £41m in the red this year) that 'Wellness' actually needs to start at the very very bottom.

Lastly, the decision to raise council rent by 2.97% needed to be approved. As some of this rise was to cover the Council's council house maintenance, the long running Council House Standards programme, Cllr Caiach wondered why, after so many years, some of her constituents still had cladding falling from their houses and why the cavity wall insulation was causing extensive damp problems.

This was too much for Mr James who demanded she produce a list for his officers, wondering, sarcastically, why she hadn't already done so. "It's not true" he said, 'don't bring this to council, it gives the wrong impression'. Implying, of course, and for the benefit of the webcam, that Cllr Caiach was lying.
Councillors mustn't forget the golden rule that 'impression' is everything, regardless of the truth.
We couldn't see Cllr Caiach's expression on hearing this outburst, but I'm guessing it was one of total bemusement.

Webcast here.  


Anonymous said...

The dark lord needs to lead by example and live in one of these perfect council houses. No doubt there will be nothing wrong with the property and of course he then wouldn't need to avail himself of the Wellness Clinic when it all goes wrong.

But just incase he should, at least he will be assured of treatment at the 'highest level' no doubt by some holistic quack with an 'ology.

Thats alright then.

Meanwhile, and back in the real world.

Martin Milan said...

Mr. James comments toward Sian Caiach would seem to be very ill advised. I hope she now supplies the list, gets some testimony from the tenants concerned, and invites Mr. James to apologise for questioning her honesty...

It should be a fairly simple matter for Sian to prove her case - though for the record I don't doubt her word for a moment.