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Councils’ budgets ‘war of attrition’

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The cost of cuts: Councils will lose 4.5% net

THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT settlement announced by Welsh Government continues an eight-year run of real term reductions to local government funding.

That’s according to the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) in response to Tuesday’s (Oct 10) announcement of the provisional budget for local government by Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford.

The Welsh Government claims the Budget will ‘protect key services’, as they continue to squeeze councils into devoting an ever-larger slice of an ever-diminishing budget to its core priorities.

‘COUNCILS PROTECTED FROM WORST OF CUTS’

While the Welsh Government claims that no council will have to cut more than 1% off its budget next year and 1.5% off the budget for 2019/20, when other costs are factored in all councils will be faced with a further significant cut above and beyond the headline claims. And taking Welsh government grants out of the final settlement suggests that cuts will be deeper still.

Announcing the provisional settlement, Mark Drakeford said: “Last year I told local authorities to prepare for the tougher times and harder choices that lay ahead as the flawed and failed policy of austerity continues to hit Wales hard.

“My priority, using a formula we have agreed with local government, is to try and protect councils from the worst of the cuts.

“Next year’s settlement might be difficult. We have done all we can to make it manageable. Councils must now use this time to plan ahead and ensure that funding goes to the services and people who need it the most.”

‘SERVICES HAVE BEEN PUMMELLED’

Professor Drakeford’s words got a stony welcome from the WLGA.

A statement from the body said: “In the context of ongoing and prolonged austerity, councils will view this as a very difficult and challenging settlement for supporting vital services that contribute to the education, health and well- being of our communities.

“Leaders across Wales have pushed for parity of funding and particularly sought new investment in a range of services, such as economic development, environmental health and transport, which have been pummelled by cuts.

“The headline reduction of 0.5% fails to recognise the full story; with service pressures that amount to £212m in 2018-19 alone, the sector will have to look for savings of nearly 4.5% of net budgets in the next financial year. This comes on top of cuts of over £1bn that have been made to date and 25,000 job losses across the sector. While the reduction is within the range predicted by the WLGA, local government is still bearing the heaviest burden of austerity.”

‘POSITION IS UNSUSTAINABLE’

Commenting on the draft settlement, Councillor Debbie Wilcox (Newport), WLGA Leader said: “The problem for local government is that we are now in a ‘war of attrition’. Services are wearing down to the point of collapse and the public are rightly growing frustrated in terms of paying council tax and yet seeing key community functions cut or closed.

“The whole position is unsustainable. Local authorities cannot go on to be expected to make the harshest of cuts whilst continuing to provide the same breadth and level of service; in short, something has got to give. “

‘WORKFORCE DESERVES A PAY RISE’

Councillor Emlyn Dole (Carmarthenshire), WLGA Plaid Cymru Group Leader said: “Welsh councils will still face severe financial pressures estimated to be over £200m for the next financial year alone due to demographic factors and workforce related pressures.

“I would urge the UK Government to use its Budget announcement in November to fully fund any relaxation of the pay cap. Every 1% increase in pay costs the public sector around £100m, and £35m of that is attributable to councils.

“Our workforce deserves a pay rise. In this context, local government funding must be more flexible and the transfer of nearly £100m of grants into the settlement is a positive step. I would urge Ministers to think about the other funding flexibilities for the other £700m in grants which put an additional administrative burden on the public services.”

UNDERFUNDED AND UNSUSTAINABLE

Councillor Hugh Evans OBE (Denbighshire), WLGA Independent Group Leader said: “The funding formula delivers a range of increases and decreases across the 22 local authorities. We need to make sure that the system takes account of the additional needs of providing services in communities with diverse needs and especially the additional costs of providing services in rural communities which are dramatically underfunded.”

Councillor Peter Fox OBE (Monmouthshire), WLGA Conservative Group Leader said: “Social services and education should be funded on equal terms with health, which means providing the £160m that both services need to stand still next year. There are also a range of preventative services within councils that will not survive unless the Welsh Government has a long hard look at the way it allocates money across the totality of public services. Ring-fencing small sums in the settlement for those services is like robbing Peter to pay Paul, as other services suffer.”

‘SERIOUS CASH INJECTION REQUIRED’

UNISON has also criticised the Welsh government’s budget for local authority spending as wholly inadequate. The trade union has warned thousands of jobs will be lost and local public services will be reduced or disappear completely because councils are under severe financial pressure.

UNISON also blasted Welsh Government’s failure to fund the implement of the Foundation Living Wage to lift thousands of council workers out of in-work poverty, something it says could have been achieved with a relatively modest injection of cash.

Dominic MacAskill, UNISON head of local government said: “Today’s news is grim indeed. People can’t understand why their library opening hours will have to be reduced or their youth club shut down in the name of austerity. Communities need quality local services otherwise they cease to be healthy and liveable places but councils are struggling to provide these and more – parks and leisure services, food hygiene and environment health services, on the meagre budgets Welsh Government has today granted.

“Savage spending cuts might be directed by Westminster Conservatives but the Welsh Government must see the lack of new money for local authorities in the announcement today will mean thousands more council jobs are lost and services at smaller councils might collapse altogether. Our warning couldn’t be starker: without a serious injection of cash, some councils will become unsustainable.”

Mr MacAskill added: “Public service workers will be incredibly frustrated their concerns are not being listened to. Welsh government has missed an opportunity to lift thousands of hard working council staff out of in-work poverty by failing to fund the Foundation Living Wage for all local government employees. They agreed this was necessary in the NHS and the Civil Service, why can’t they do it for all public service workers?”

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Ben Lake MP urges UK Government to review calorie legislation

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JUST one week after the legislation to label restaurants with calorie labels came to force the Hearts Minds Genes Coalition for eating disorders, chaired by multi award winning campaigner Hope Virgo, have coordinated an open letter to the Government calling on the Government to: 

  • Make a commitment that the evaluation of the new legislation to label restaurants with calories on will happen in the first year with a commitment that members from the eating disorder community and experts will be involved in this review. 
  • To make it mandatory for every single restaurant that has to have mandatory calorie labelling will also have a no-calorie menu choice for those who wish to request this 
  • To remove the labelling of calories on children’s menus in all restaurants

The letter spotlights the problematic nature of adding calories to menus, highlighting not only the dangers for those affected by eating disorders but for the wider society. It goes on to emphasise that with 16% of the adult population screening positive for an eating disorder and millions more suffering from eating disorders, what is proposed as a “common-sense approach” – focusing on weight and calorie counting – is incredibly destructive. 

Ben Lake MP

Ben Lake MP says: “Mandating calorie labelling may have a detrimental impact on those living with, or who are at risk of developing eating disorders. The rates of both eating disorders and obesity are increasing across the UK and whilst we all want to have a population approach to making society healthier, none of us want unintended consequences for people on whose lives this issue has a profound impact.  

“I believe that the UK Government should take a holistic approach to tackling obesity. Action is needed to protect children from junk food marketing with restrictions on advertising, alongside the promotion of healthy  food choices in shops and supermarkets. More widely, I believe that the UK Government must reverse cuts to public health funding to ensure that community services can support people to live healthier lives.” 

Hope Virgo says: “I honestly still can’t quite believe that this has happened. For so many people affected by eating disorders restaurants will become an even more toxic and fearful place. It will normalise conversations around food and exercise. Over the pandemic we have seen a huge increase in eating disorders, with services completely overrun. Do we really want future generations to grow up basing their food decisions on numbers? Since the legislation came into force I have been inundated with messages from people who have so much fear not just for themselves but those around them.” 

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Boris Johnson, his wife and chancellor Rishi Sunak to be fined for breaking lockdown rules

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THE PRIME MINISTER Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie, and chancellor Rishi Sunak, have been notified that they will be issued with fines for breaking lockdown rules.

The fixed penalty notices are the result of a Metropolitan Police investigation into parties in Downing Street and Whitehall in 2020 and 2021.

Mr Johnson will become the first sitting prime minister to receive a punishment for breaking the law.

Labour immediately called for both the PM and chancellor to resign while Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey called for parliament to be recalled for a vote of confidence in Mr Johnson.

Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon also demanded that they should quit.

Those calls have been echoed this week by Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Jane Dodds has called on the Welsh Conservative Leader Andrew RT Davies and Welsh Secretary Simon Hart to “show a backbone” and call for Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak to resign following the news that both men are to be fined over lockdown parties.

Commenting Jane Dodds MS told The Herald: “Boris Johnson & Rishi Sunak have broken the law & repeatedly lied, they must resign from their positions at once.

“While people in Wales were playing by the rules at great personal expense, those in charge thought they were above the law.

“This also will come as a painful blow to all those covid bereaved families in Wales.  The behavior of Johnson and Sunak

“The Welsh public deserves much better. For the sake of the country, both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak must resign immediately.

“If the Conservative Party is to have any legitimacy in Wales Andrew RT Davies and Simon Hart need to show some backbone and be calling for resignations immediately. No Welsh Conservative MP should be backing the Chancellor or Prime Minister staying in post.”

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Concessions to UK Elections Bill secured to ensure open and accessible elections in Wales

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COUNSEL GENERAL Mick Antoniw reaffirmed the Welsh Government’s commitment to open elections and increased voter participation, as the Senedd prepares to vote on the passage of the UK Government’s Elections Bill.

The UK Government’s Elections Bill proposes the introduction of mandatory photo ID, as well as measures relating to the administration and conduct of elections, overseas electors and UK citizens, and amendments to the role of the Electoral Commission.

The Welsh Government has secured concessions that mean large parts of the Bill will not apply to Senedd and local government elections in Wales. This includes removing a proposed provision that would have allowed the Secretary of State to direct the Electoral Commission in the discharge of its devolved functions in Wales.

In a Legislative Consent Motion, to be voted on in the Senedd on Tuesday, the Welsh Government is recommending consent is given in two specific areas only – digital imprints and an offence of voter intimidation.

Mick Antoniw, Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution, said: “The concessions we have secured to this Bill represent a success for devolution. The Welsh Government is committed to making elections as open and accessible as possible, and to do all in its power to increase participation.

“This is why 16 and 17 year olds and qualifying foreign citizens will be able to vote in local elections in Wales for the first time this May. We are also running pilot schemes in four local authorities designed to make it easier for people to vote at a time and a place that is convenient for them.

“The UK Government plans for voter ID risk making voting harder. Though the proposals won’t apply to devolved elections, they will apply to general elections in Wales and I’m concerned this will confuse voters. We have shared our concerns with the UK Government.”

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