Bridgend Council budget 2013-14

In the last week or two, Bridgend Council’s cabinet finalised and approved its budget (Item 14) for 2013-14 as well as provisional spending plans for the next four years. The full council met earlier today to discuss the plans and – barring any last minute hitches – approved them.
The total budget is worth ~£255m per year, but the 4-year budget forecasts indicate that it’s going to stay at that level until 2016-17.

Although nowhere near as dramatic as the cuts being enacted in Cardiff, there’s still a £24million funding gap over the next four years that needed to be closed. Partially as a result, council tax rates in Bridgend will rise by 3.5% in April, after being frozen just before last year’s local council elections – which were comprehensively won by Labour.

Bridgend Council leader, Mel Nott (Lab, Sarn), is quoted as saying:

“Reluctantly we feel we must increase council tax this year, but in doing so we have sought to balance the need to protect essential services with households’ ability to manage in these difficult economic times. We will continue to make a determined effort to keep any council tax increases to a reasonable level throughout our administration, despite rising demands for local services and reducing income.”

Throw in the various precepts for South Wales Police and Community Councils and the average Band D council tax bill will rise by £50.67.Yes, he took the obligatory swipe at the UK Coalition too, and he’d have a point as local authorities have come under strain in areas like housing and welfare (not helped by the dilly-dallying over council tax benefit by the Welsh Government the end of 2012). However, local government settlements are ultimately decided and set by the Welsh Government.

I’ll be taking an in-depth look at local government very soon, but it’s fair to say that scrutiny of budgets is one area where local councils trump the National Assembly. The Welsh Government and civil service seem coy when it comes to giving AMs the same chance to take in-depth looks at spending in areas like the NHS in particular.

It’s worth looking at the budget proposals in a bit more detail, including areas which are subject to cuts, as well as protected areas.

Revenue spending

This covers ongoing funding for council services. There are total “identified budget reductions”/cuts of just over £3.7million for this year. Many of the savings appear to be “administrative” (things like reducing management travel) and are spread over a wide area – saving £10-20,000 here and there.

The biggest losers appear to be the Wellbeing (Leisure & Social Services) and Communities (Planning, Environment & Highways) directorates, each seeing cuts of £1m+ each.

There’s a £150,000 cut to learning disability day services – including transport to and from them. This is said to possibly “increase pressure on carers”. There are further £35,000 and £20,000 cuts to elderly and physically disabled day services. A “less generous” fair charging policy could also save £185,000 by raising prices .There’s a £125,000 cut to management training here too (which could affect service performance) as well as a £110,000 cut to supported living services social activities. A total of £685,000 of cuts have been made to adult social care overall.

There are various cuts to youth, children’s and family services – as well as cost savings by merging schools – totalling at least £150,000. This includes cuts to things like education psychology services.There are discussions with the Vale of Glamorgan towards providing joint youth services in the future.
In Communities, it’s aimed to save £200,000 by reviewing management and administration. At least a further £130,000 could be saved by negotiating with Neath Port Talbot to reduce the amount of waste sent to the incinerator in Baglan Bay, as overall waste disposal in Bridgend decreases due to increased recycling.

Structural maintenance of highways will be cut by £250,000, offset by prudential borrowing (mentioned later).

£125,000 has been saved in the transfer of leisure services to Halo. Closing the Berwyn Centre is said to save £65,000 in funding for community arts venues. There could be cuts to the running of Bridgend Market too – subject to a review.

It looks as though subsidised bus services in Bridgend have been protected this year, mainly because underused rail link buses were cut in previous years, saving enough money to protect services now – which are due big cuts in grant funding from the Welsh Government.

There are also several identified “budget pressures” – totalling £5.9million. These are areas that could put strain on council finances in the short term. For example: demographic changes and increased demand putting pressure on social services, BCBC losing £83,000 in rent income as Valleys to Coast are moving from their Bryncethin depot, as well as £120,000 costs in keeping the Ogmore Comprehensive site open to the public until Ysgol Bryn Castell and the Pupil Referral Unit move there.

Capital spending

Capital spending is used to provide “completely new” things. Overall capital spending is being cut back over the next few years. Not including external funds available to the council from the likes of the Welsh Government and EU, it’s due to fall from £17.5million per year in 2014-15 to £7.8million in 2016-17.

Of the £180million or so capital funding available until 2022-23, the vast chunk of this (~£84million) is to be spent as part of the Schools Modernisation Programme. That includes new schools for Pen-y-fai (currently under construction), Parc Derwen (replacement for Coety Primary), Mynydd Cynffig Primary merger and Pencoed Primary (expanding to accommodate the closing Heol-y-Cyw Primary).

There’s £777,000 set aside for Bettws Primary, which I presume is to repair/replace the school, which was gutted by a serious fire last year.

Other projects are likely to be added in forthcoming years, in particular primary school provision in the “Gateway to the Valleys” area (Aberkenfig, Bryncethin, Sarn etc.) and the Garw Valley – a combined total of ~£19million.

~£2.45million is projected to be spent annually on housing renewal projects until 2022-23.

There’s another £2.28million in borrowing for highways infrastructure as part of a Welsh Government scheme. It’s also worth pointing out the ~£4.7million that’ll be borrowed to fund infrastructure to allow Porthcawl’s stalling regeneration project to get moving – once a willing development partner is found.

£200k has been put towards what I presume is a replacement for the Berwyn Centre. It’s due to be demolished sometime in the next few weeks barring a successful last minute legal challenge.

Fees and charges

  • School meal prices are rising by 10p from September 2013. It doesn’t affect free school meals. It should raise £100,000 for the council.
  • Fees for those not eligible for free school transport will rise from £137 per year to at least £200 per year (the document says it would rise by 50% [to ~£205], but they actually give £270, which is a rise of 97%. I think they mean £207.). This affects around 100 pupils.
  • Adult social care fees are subject to the Social Care Charges Measure 2010 – which caps charges – as well as some aspects of the Social Services Bill currently going through the Assembly. A review is likely by BCBC at some point in the future once services are remodelled.
  • Fees for use of Bryngarw House and committee rooms are open for review, but remain (provisionally) unchanged.
  • Partly related to this, I’ve mentioned the introduction of civilian parking enforcement officers/traffic wardens before.

I’ve got to say, on paper it looks as if there’s a fair spread of the “pain”. Welsh local authorities – in general – have come out better in terms of settlements the last few years than English counterparts. However, cuts to things like adult social services and youth services are always going to be controversial – especially in the times we live in. A sum like £10,000 might not look very much compared to revenue cuts of £3.7million, but for small organisations on the ground that would have an impact. Yes, even cutting back on “wasteful spending” like stationary will be noticeable by BCBC staff I presume.

I think, however, the people of Bridgend aren’t going to get off as lightly next year. If council tax wasn’t rising as sharply as it will this April, I think there would’ve been harder choices to be made – though it’s unclear how much income will be generated. One of the scrutiny committees suggested that BCBC produce “income generating reports” as part of the budget.
Although it appears there’s finally been an agreement with trade unions on the contentious job evaluation for BCBC employees, when calls for a “living wage” start to come harder and faster – as they have done in other Labour-run local authorities – there’s going to be some big, big problems ahead.

So here’s a heads up – the longer term financial projections don’t look good at all.