Saturday 25 November 2017

News in Brief - Council budget and other news

Council budget

The council's budget for the next couple of years puts in an appearance on Monday's Executive Board agenda as the proposals are rubber stamped for consultation. The budget report shows that, for next year at least, the cuts to the schools budget are avoided by a cash injection (taken from other grants, not new money) from the Welsh Government, although in real terms there are no extra funds to cover inflation, pay awards etc so in effect there's a £2.3m cut. The following year there's a planned cut of £4m. Nor has the chopping and changing to assorted grants by the Welsh Government, such as the school uniform grant, been taken into account.

Reading the report there seems to be a real problem with clarity from the Welsh government over it's various funding pots but the council have had a better than anticipated deal which means that instead of around £36m of cuts ('efficiencies') required over the next three years the figure is around £31m. For 2018/19 it's £8.5m instead of £12.5m. Council tax is due to rise by 4.12%.

The proposals themselves can be found here (See? I'm assisting the council in it's consultation process) The managerial cuts seem a little optimistic and depend heavily on restructuring, reviewing and rejigging existing arrangements, particularly a £1m cut next year to domiciliary care and support for those with learning disabilities.

The actual service cuts ('Policy proposals') kick off with another rise in school meals, with Carmarthenshire the joint highest in Wales. The continuing price increases are showing a drop in uptake, which can't be good.

The main points which struck me were a couple of proposals which have reappeared after being dropped in earlier budgets. First is the plan to start charging for sixth form/college transport. The provision is non-statutory, and, indeed, some other authorities make charges but getting from A to B is hard enough as it is, from the cost of running a car to the very limited rural bus services and for most families in the outlying areas a charge could easily be the decider over whether a 16 year old continues their education or not.

The second proposal is a £400k cut to the respite centres for profoundly disabled children. Previous plans to close the two respite centres were permanently abandoned last year so I can't imagine closure is on the cards, well, I hope not. This is what the proposal says;
"Consultancy (IPC) engaged in full review of disability services. This suggests that families would
benefit from greater flexibility of service and more personal discretion would lead to a more
diverse range of respite provision thereby requiring less residential respite"

I would like to know how much the consultants are charging for all this and I also hope that the families are being fully consulted rather than being the subject of a desk-top exercise to arrive at the council's preferred outcome.

It will be interesting to see how the City Deal and 'Wellness Village' translates into figures, or should I say borrowing, in the capital budget. The cash set aside for the leisure centre and care home could well disappear into the black hole of this latest vanity project. The council debt is already £388m with a quiet £20m borrowed in August. The luxury spa Wellness thing and could well provide a lasting legacy of insurmountable debt whilst our roads crumble and day centres for the elderly are 'reviewed'...

It remains a disappointment that Carmarthenshire Council, and other Welsh council still refuse to publish their monthly spending details. This is a legal requirement in England and provides the public, and, of course, 'armchair auditors' with a greater financial insight and enables better scrutiny.

National Botanic Gardens

The next item on the executive board agenda is a plea from the Botanic Gardens to extend the time to start paying back an interest free £1.35m loan from March 2018 to March 2020. Despite years of mismanagement, nobody wants to see the Gardens fail and recent reports claim a slight improvement in it's financial fortunes. However, it has always required public money to keep going and probably always will; the council itself now gives the Garden around £50k a year, though let's face it £1.35m would certainly help with respite care, etc sooner rather than later. (Update 27th; Exec Board agreed to the extension)

Interestingly the report states that 'questions need to be asked' over the Garden's proposals to turn the farmhouses into holiday lets and student accommodation. The four farmhouses on the land are the security for the council's interest free loan and were supposed to be sold off to repay it, but never were.

Mind you, questions need to be asked about a lot of things, unrelated to the Botanic Gardens....

Council Owned Housing Company

Also doing the rounds of press releases and agenda items (and also mentioned briefly in my previous post, Nothing to declare!) is the plan to set up a council owned housing company. As Carmarthenshire Council is the latest in a long line of councils to do this then one would hope that lessons have been learned over the years and little could go wrong. Let's hope that is indeed the case, because as it will be trading as a company there will be 'commercial sensitivities' which preclude too much in the way of scrutiny. The set up costs will be at least £100,000.

The idea is to find 'new ways' to deliver affordable and/or market housing though the report is not entirely clear how this will be achieved (or it could be me who's not clear, I'm not exactly an expert). I'm presuming that, in part, it will be subsidising the private rented sector via loans and schemes and land transfers from the council. For a snapshot of another council's, erm, arrangements for housing those in need, this blog post about Barnet Homes is worth a read...

At the moment the company would continue to use existing council staff and resources but, as with any commercial entity, and "without significant intrusive Council controls", after a time it would look to save costs, maximise profits and branch out into the 'market' and source cheaper options from elsewhere.

The justification for the company is in part, based on the Welsh Government populations predictions for future demand for housing, which formed the Local Development Plan which were never going to be met. These predictions were, in fact, soon found to be way off the mark across the whole of Wales and have now been reassessed to much lower figures.

Anyway, it will be one to watch.

Councillors' salaries

On the agenda for next week's Democratic Services Committee is the annual Independent Remuneration Panel Wales' recommendations over councillors allowances. This year a £200 rise is recommended putting up the basic allowance from £13,400 to £13,600; the Leader, deputy, Chairs and Chair of council also get the extra £200 within their 'senior salaries'. All the details can be seen in the report here.
Meanwhile, the salaries of senior officers remain at eye-watering levels. Topping the chart is the chief executive at £170,000 plus assorted perks, and his Deputy on £134,000 plus £17,000 pension contributions.

I note that Mark James has resigned from his role as lead chief executive of the regional education board (ERW), I wonder if this is the start of a pattern? Rumours have also been circulating that Chez James, otherwise known as the Presidential Palace, is having a bit of a refurb and might soon be on the market....a golden handshake on its way? Golden handcuffs might be more appropriate.

Webcasting and 'CRWG'

To see whether you are getting value for money for your councillor (£48,000 for the leader etc etc) webcasting has been a useful guide. Though, as this is a subject I have taken a particular interest in, I must remind readers that in the control freakery world of County Hall recordings by the public are still banned, unless the meeting is already being webcast.
Unfortunately, Wales has yet to catch up with England in enshrining our democratic rights.

Last December discussions took place to start webcasting all the other meetings, including Scrutiny and Audit Committees in addition to full council, Planning and Executive Board meetings which are currently screened. As it would have meant an increase in hours from 100 to 230 the idea was shelved. Not helped I'm sure by having the now-retired Pam Palmer, who hated any sort of filming, sat on the Group. One concession was made however and that was to webcast special meetings, such as when Scrutiny Committees discuss the budget. As these meetings are coming up over the next couple of months let's hope the concession is honoured.

This information came from the 'Decision Notes' from the Constitutional Review Working Group (CRWG) which I had requested from Ms Rees Jones. The Group meets a couple of times a year. I still find it highly ironic that this group, which grew from the pension and libel indemnity scandals, the WLGA governance review and, essentially, the council's aim to be the most transparent in Wales, refuses to publish it's agendas and minutes online.

One of my somewhat repeated enquiries has been the request to remove the 'suspended' libel clause from the constitution. It's approaching it's fourth year of 'suspension' and Mr James and Ms Rees Jones are, given their dilemma, reluctant to let it go. It seems they would prefer to leave it there as a permanent memorial to their professional incompetence, arrogance and unlawful behaviour... I recently wrote to Emlyn Dole, who 'Chairs' CRWG to ask for the matter of its complete removal to be placed on the agenda for discussion at a future meeting.

Sadly Mr Dole refused my request having changed his mind since his opposition days and now sings from the same distinctly un-Christian like hymn sheet as Mr James. As to who actually Chairs the CRWG meetings, well, it is notable that Mr James and Linda Rees Jones are both present to impart their wisdom. Which might just explain things...
Anyway, I'll keep trying. Before they un-suspend it, blow next years budget and sue someone.

In other news, as I mentioned in my earlier post, Response from the Police Commissioner, the harassment warning issued against me in August 2016 expired last month, but the chief constable has refused to remove the details concerning its issue from police systems. It's a bit like having some sort of 'criminal' record with no crime ever having been committed and having no means whatsoever to defend myself.
I have now made a complaint to the police that they are holding information about me that I do not agree to. I'll let you know what happens.  


Teifion said...

Might we save a bit of money and get rid of our councillors as I see they serve no purpose?

After all they are only puppets who when told to jump only ask "how high?"

Anonymous said...

Regarding the Housing company we all know how that is going to turn out only have to look at the model the CEO is using in Canary Wharf !

As to the salaries I am right in remembering that the CEO was linked to the Vice Chancellor's role in Bath University once upon a time - that position was in the news last week due to the high salary of £450,000 in pay and benefit

He must be gutted not to get that gig - puts his £170,000 in the shade

Finally as to the Botanic Gardens - that is the biggest white elephant in the County it will never make money and moves further away from its original raison d etre with every money making idea

caebrwyn said...

Anon 10:58
Just to clarify, it's Century Wharf, not Canary Wharf.
As for the Gardens, you could be right about moving away from it's original objective as it was recently granted an extended alcohol license to cover the whole garden not just the restaurant...there's nothing like downing a couple of cans of Stella when you're admiring the geraniums.

Anonymous said...

Napoleon was NEVER going to be in the frame for the Vice Chancellors role in Bath. In fact while his *rse points downwards he will never be entertained for any vice chancellor role at any university. The sheer arrogance of the man to even contemplate that he is capable of such a role simply demonstrates how big the ego has become.

He needs educating on the requirements for such roles. For example a career in academia, a PhD or even a chair somewhere relevant would be a start. A chair in county hall aint never going to cut it. He's lucky the ducking chair is no longer used as that would be perfect for him and also the right level.

Anonymous said...

Further on the news of the Botanic Gardens and its alcohol license other ideas for the garden could include

1. Turning the glasshouse dome into a Gin House and planting some juniper berries plants
2. Zip wire facility
3. Trampoline centre
4. Fresh water swimming
5. Stack and hen parties

And on and on ........