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‘Greater scrutiny’ needed for council budget

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County Hall

County Hall

THE PAIN of the council’s budget settlement has been the subject of a press briefing, seminars for council members and public consultation. The headline figures are stark and staggering. Pembrokeshire County Council has to find savings amounting to a quarter of its overall budget over the next few years. With education and social care budgets ‘protected’, the way in which our local authority will deliver future services is bound to change. Services cut previously to the bone, will be sliced to the marrow. All of these cuts are also scheduled to take place against the background of threatened forced reorganization of local government and the end of local democracy in Pembrokeshire. In a time of deep and savage cuts to their budgets, the Welsh Government is expecting local authorities to fund the tens of millions of pounds it will cost to merge authorities out of their own resources.

Cardiff Bay claims there will be great savings to be made but has not produced one single shred of evidence to support that contention. Indeed, earlier this year this newspaper interviewed Kevin Madge, Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, who told us: “Any new structure will take five to eight years to ‘bed in’ and it could take eight to ten years for a new authority to fully get to grips with things. Things won’t improve overnight. Reorganization is not a magic wand.” With budgets squeezed and pressure being applied from Cardiff to stifle local democracy it is imperative that councillors take every step to scrutinise what Pembrokeshire County Council is doing with the money under its control.

Only in that way can it be shown that our councillors are fit for purpose and have a clear grasp of the council’s finances. The Pembrokeshire Herald has been looking at the systems the council has in place in relation to its finances and how spending priorities are set. That investigation has shown that figures produced by officers are being approved without interrogating the data or assumptions that underpin the financial forecasts produced and routinely approved without query or inquiry by the Cabinet and the majority of councillors. For example, the public and the council are routinely told that the council’s annual budget is around £200m. But that is only the nett figure. The gross council budget is significantly higher.

Assumptions made about income and expenditure are often adjusted before figures are present for democratic scrutiny, so that members are always presented with a balanced budget, even when forecasts are wrong or overtaken by events. For example, the budget approved at the beginning of the coming municipal year contained assumptions about the closure of Narberth Pool and income to be derived from charging for day services for the elderly. Both of those assumptions were overtaken by events. However, such is the opaque nature of local government finance that councillors have practically no way of properly interrogating the information given to them by officers and reaching a balanced and informed conclusion on the authority’s true financial position and future plans. This summer Pembrokeshire County Council organised a series of budget seminars for councillors to try and tackle this knowledge gap and address concerns that councillors were being asked to make uninformed judgements on future service provision.

At a media briefing in October, Jamie Adams told journalists: “We are at a tipping point in local government finances.” Speaking subsequently about the council’s public consultation on the budget, Jamie Adams told Jon Coles, this newspaper’s deputy editor: “Matters which councillors think are important to the public are not always those that people find important. By and large what has come across clearly are concerns about senior officers’ pay and councillors’ remuneration. There is a commitment to look at the whole cost of senior management. In terms of where we go, the opportunities to trim around the edges is no longer there, we are going to have to look more dispassionately at the services we provide and what communities can provide.”

With a six-month review of the council’s financial performance due to be discussed in the near future, we asked Pembrokeshire Alliance leader Bob Kilmister, whose party is engaged in drawing up an alternative budget, for his view on the challenges councillors face in trying to make sense of complex financial information. He told us: “My experience is that Local Government finance is made extremely complicated and much more difficult to understand than it needs to be. I like to think that I can follow balance sheets especially those of stock market listed companies but trying to work out the complexities of my local Council often leaves me totally bemused. “Councillors have been given very little training in this area and most take very little interest at all.

In my experience very few questions if any are asked when scrutiny is supposed to take place in cabinet or on committees. I have the greatest respect for the Officers and the Authority always appears to be on track financially despite Councillors taking such little interest. Government lays down the way this is carried out and I think it is time they took a long hard look at this and urgently brought in reforms to simplify matters. I am sure this would result in savings but more importantly it could lead to greater scrutiny by elected representatives.”

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Crime Commissioner continues to secure funding for organisations that support victims of domestic and sexual violence

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THE POLICE and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed-Powys Police is again making the offer for organisations that support victims of domestic and sexual abuse to bid for additional funds.

Funding was made available last year, in light of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on organisations supporting victims of domestic and sexual violence.

It was part of a £76 million package of support made available by the UK Government.

Police and Crime Commissioner Dafydd Llywelyn said: “Thanks to this additional funding, we can ensure that victims and survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence in Dyfed-Powys can access specialist services for support, at a time when they are needed the most.

“Unfortunately, we have seen a rise in domestic violence during the pandemic and victims need help now more than ever and I am grateful for the work of all the service providers across the Force area that help these men, women and families who are most in need.

“I want to reassure anyone who is in an abusive situation or relationship that you do not need to suffer in silence, and I urge anyone to report abuse to the Police on 101 or 999 in an emergency.

“This funding is open both to providers whom I currently commission and those that I do not currently fund. However, unlike the extraordinary Covid-19 funding provided in 2020/21, organisations do not need to be a registered charity, a charitable incorporated organisation, or a social enterprise to be eligible for this funding. They must, however, provide support services which have the purpose of helping victims of sexual violence or domestic abuse cope with the impacts of crime and, as far as possible, recover from the harm they have experienced. We would also encourage applications from small specialist organisations that support groups with protected characteristics.

“If you wish to submit a request for this funding, further guidance is available on my website, and can be requested via the office e-mail address.”

Closing date for submissions is close of play on Friday, March 12, 2021.

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Covid alert level lowered for whole of UK

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THE COVID alert level for all four nations of the United Kingdom has been lowered to alert level 4.

The decision comes following advice from the Joint Biosecurity Centre and in light of the most recent data.

In recent weeks, the R-rate and the number of covid cases has been on the decline.

Chief Medical Officer for Wales, Dr Frank Atherton said: “Following advice from the Joint Biosecurity Centre and in the light of the most recent data, the four UK Chief Medical Officers and NHS England National Medical Director agree that the UK alert level should move from level 5 to level 4 in all four nations.

“The health services across the four nations remain under significant pressure with a high number of patients in hospital, however thanks to the efforts of public we are now seeing numbers consistently declining, and the threat of the NHS and other health services being overwhelmed within 21 days has receded.

“We should be under no illusions – transmission rates, hospital pressures and deaths are still very high. In time, the vaccines will have a major impact and we encourage everyone to get vaccinated when they receive the offer. However for the time being it is really important that we all – vaccinated or not – remain vigilant and continue to follow the guidelines.

“We know how difficult the situation has been and remains to be for healthcare workers, we thank them for their immense effort, skill and professionalism throughout the pandemic.”

Under the Welsh Government’s Alert level 4 restrictions, schools and colleges, places of worship, community centres, playgrounds and public parks are among those that can be opened.

Theatres, entertainment venues, leisure facilities and outdoor visitors attractions are among the places that must remain close while the country is in Alert Level 4.

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Postmaster and politicians welcome Goodwick cash machine U-turn

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GOODWICK post office will now be keeping its ATM, after a U-turn by Post Office Ltd.

The machine was due to be removed within months with the post master, Jon Moverley saying that it would be a disaster for the village.

If the ATM had been removed, there would have been just two 24-hour ATMs serving the whole of Fishguard and Goodwick in the short term and three when the Co-op renovations are completed.

Both politicians and local residents then got behind the campaign to keep the ATM

Pembrokeshire politicians Paul Davies and Stephen Crabb have welcomed the news that Goodwick post office is now set to keep its ATM facility. Following representations made by both politicians to the Post Office, it’s now been confirmed that Goodwick Post Office will be included in the rollout of ATM machines across the post office network.

Mr Davies said “This is really welcome news. I’m pleased that the Post Office has listened to the representations made by the local community and decided to retain the ATM at Goodwick post office. The facility is so important for local people and businesses and it’s great that that’s been recognised and the Post Office has committed to keeping it.”

Following the Post Office’s decision to invest in Goodwick’s ATM rather than remove it, Stephen Crabb MP, who campaigned for the ATM to stay, commented: “It’s great news that the Post Office has overturned its own decision and will be keeping an ATM machine in Goodwick.

“Access to cash continues to be incredibly important for a number of people and businesses and I’m pleased to have played my part in working with John from the Post Office in Goodwick, Paul Davies MS and the wider community to highlight the ATMs importance to the area. It shows what can be achieved when we work together.”

The postmaster described the news as ‘brilliant’. Mr Moverley thanked supporters.

He said “Many thanks to all of you who have used the machine and complained to POL about the removal. We were also supported by our MP, MS and mayor, the National Federation of Sub-postmasters and our Chamber of Trade.

“Everyone did their bit, and it says an enormous amount about the strength of the community.

“We are delighted that locals and so many other people have come together to save this essential facility in the village.”

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