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Is financial ignorance bliss for councillors?

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councilTHE COUNCIL’S budget is essentially the same as our household budget: we get a salary and/or pension/benefits out of which we pay our expenses, and with a bit of luck, have some disposable income for non-essential ‘luxuries’ such as holidays, and if we are really fortunate, are able to set aside some savings. The Council gets its income from a variety of sources: Rate Support Grant (our income taxes), Non Domestic or Business Rates (paid by local businesses), Council tax paid by us, and direct charges from “customers” of Council services, for example Car Parking and some Adult Services, e.g. Day Centres and Meals on Wheels. The Council can also receive direct grants for providing specified services. It can increase its income yields by putting up the Council Tax and direct charges. From this collective income, the Council budgets and prioritises how much it can spend on providing our services. Much in the same way that we may be fortunate enough to build up a savings pot, the Council can build up reserves, which are required to even out peaks and troughs of expenditure over a number of years, or to put by for specific purposes or projects. Like us, the Council can also borrow money to fund projects that have a ‘life’ over a number of years. However, unlike us, it is not allowed to finance expenditure in the current year from borrowing.

Leaving it to officers 

It is impossible for Councillors to authorise every payment the Council makes. For day to day operational purposes, the Cabinet therefore authorises or delegates spending powers to unelected officers to incur expenditure during the year on services within the Council, approved Budget allocations. The Cabinet has delegated wider powers to the Director of Finance for the allocation and use of reserves, both Capital and Revenue. Every three months, throughout the year, officers are required to report the financial position to Cabinet and Scrutiny Committees, plus a final outturn monitoring report at the 12 months stage. In theory, these reports enable financial performance to be monitored, by elected Councillors, against the approved annual budget. Any corrective action considered necessary as proposed by officers should be considered and agreed by Cabinet. However, these reports are focussed at Net expenditure level, which masks the true level of services provided and expenditure incurred at Gross Expenditure level. Any specific remedial action necessary is therefore not fully reported for approval. While the position on spending against the Council’s approved budget must be reported to Cabinet and Scrutiny Committees on a three monthly basis, the position on reserves is only reported to Cabinet/Council at Annual Budget time, and annually to the Corporate Governance Committee as Draft Accounts pre-audit, and then as the Final Audited Accounts.

Revealing Reserves 

On September 29, the Council’s Corporate Governance Committee received a report on the Audited 2013/14 Accounts, which included, a table of Usable Reserves on page 64. Page 63 provides description of the individual reserves for those interested. This is the only comprehensive presentation where all reserves are reported on one page. Categories of reserves are subject to different controls. The Council is required to carry annual Working Balances, and the Auditor comments on the adequacy of these reserves, provided specifically in order to meet urgent, unforeseen contingencies or circumstances. The Education Reserves are primarily under the control of individual schools. The Children and Families Overview and Scrutiny Committee November 10, received a comprehensive report providing information on the amount of balances held by schools over the last three years with a commentary on future prospects. The Table shows that the Council had a total Earmarked Capital and Revenue reserve balance of about £50m under its direct control at 1 April 2013, rising to £56million at 31 March 2014, allocated for the purposes shown. To set these amounts in some sort of context: the Council sought to raise £40.5m from Council Tax in 2014/15 (an increase of £1.5million over 2013/14) and £13.4million from its Discretionary Direct Fees and charges, (an increase of £1.6million over 2013/14). Of particular note and significance, is the trail of money movements between The Pay and Grading Reserve and 21st Century Schools Reserve during 2013/14: all happening without councillors being informed but within the delegated authority of the Director of Finance.

Moving money

 Some years ago, in common with other Councils, grants were made by the Welsh Government, staged over a number of years, to fund the likely cost of the Equal Pay/Pay and Grading reviews. In total, by March 31, 2012, our Council had received around £11.5m by grant, which was not hypothecated, and therefore did not have to be used for the purpose for which it was given. During 2012/13, £4.5million was charged against this provision in settlement of Pay Awards, leaving a balance of £7.0million – £5.6m of which was allocated to the Pay and Grading Earmarked Reserve on March 31, 2013 (let’s leave the unallocated amount of £1.4m ‘floating’ for the moment, I have yet to follow this through, suffice it to say that there is another ‘hidden’ category of reserve or Provision). The £5.6million can be picked up on the accompanying table, where the line shows a further contribution of £0.5m coming from revenue accounts, providing a total available Pay and grading reserve of £6.1m. From this sum, a contribution of £2.335million to revenue accounts was made in 2013/14 to meet the cost of further settlement of awards, leaving a balance of £3.765million at 31 3 2014 available for Pay and Grading. In total, an amount of £7.3million has been paid in pay settlements out of the total grant of £11.5million, leaving a balance of Pay and Grading Grant money of £4.2million. We have been told by officers and councillors that the Council could not afford to pay out more. While it may be true that the Pay and Grading Review was conducted fairly, an Appeals process was instigated at the behest of indignant Councillors. I understand that Appeals are still being considered and settled. I am not aware that the financial position on Pay and Grading has ever been explicitly reported or that appropriate questions have been asked by Councillors. I am sure that if I have got this wrong, the Council would be only too pleased to clarify the position.

21st Century Schools 

The table reveals that £2.861million was allocated out of the Pay and Grading Reserve into the 21st Century Schools Reserve, leaving £0.9million available on March 31, 2014 to settle Future Pay and Grading appeal awards. The 21st Century Schools programme represents a significant investment by the Council and has been agreed as a priority. Turning to the 21st Century Schools Reserve, an initial £8.514million reallocation of balances out of other earmarked reserves in order to prime the 21st Century Reserve was approved by Council in February 2011, as part of the 2011/12 Budget. Starting with the £8.514million pump priming, further contributions from revenue service accounts of £4.526million in 2011/12, £0.174m in 2012/13 and £3,519m in 2013/14, which, with the addition of the transfer during 2013/14 of £2.861million from the Pay and Grading reserve, leaves the 21st Century Schools balance on March 31, 2014 standing at £19.594million. With services being under such financial pressure, the intention is to fund the Council’s share of this significant programme from Capital Receipts (proceeds from the sale of Assets) and Borrowing.

No questions asked 

The Council, when setting its budget, rarely, if ever, considers the allocation and level of reserves. With an apparent ability to increase reserves by a total of £6.0million during £2013/14, at a time when targeted budget cuts of £1.6million were also achieved, it is perhaps time that councillors took an interest in the allocation and level of reserves. Perhaps more to the point is the question of how service budgets, under pressure, can make contributions into earmarked reserves. By amending the Council’s Constitution it is possible for the Council to redefine the terms of delegations given to Directors and the Director of Finance, and regain a measure of financial control for themselves. There may well be good arguments for doing this, in the light of the severe financial constraints the Council faces, for the sake of openness and transparency and democracy.

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Covid-19 vaccination venues and timeline announced for everyone locally over 50

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EVERY person in JCVI priority groups 5 to 9 will be offered a COVID-19 vaccination by 18 April, Hywel Dda University Health Board has confirmed.

While the health board’s vaccination programme has the capacity to offer a vaccine to everyone in groups 5 to 9 by the original target date of 4 April, the delivery plan has had to be adjusted based on confirmed vaccine deliveries.

Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, and Pembrokeshire residents in priority groups 5 to 9 can expect to receive their vaccine as follows:

  • Group 5, people aged 65 – 69 years – delivered by GP practices between 15 February and 12 March
  • Group 6, people aged 16 years to 64 years with underlying health conditions and unpaid carers – delivered by GP practices between 22 February and 4 April
  • Group 7, people aged 60 – 64 years – delivered by mass vaccination centres starting 8 March
  • Group 8, people aged 55 – 59 years – delivered by mass vaccination centres starting 22 March
  • Group 9, people aged 50 – 54 years – delivered by mass vaccination centres starting 5 April

The health board currently has mass vaccination centres located in Aberystwyth, Cardigan, Haverfordwest, Tenby, Carmarthen and Llanelli.

Group 6 is significantly the largest cohort to be vaccinated to date and we understand that many in this group will be anxious to receive a vaccine. Please do not contact your GP or the health board to ask about your appointment, you will be contacted directly when it is your turn and we thank you for your patience.

People in groups 7, 8 and 9 will receive a letter with an appointment date and time. Please arrive as close to your appointment time as possible. The letter will include a phone number to contact the health board should you need to rearrange or cancel your appointment but please make every effort to keep your allocated appointment time.

Steve Moore, Chief Executive of Hywel Dda UHB, said: “While  our programme has had to slow  due to supplies, we want to reassure everyone in groups 5 to 9 that our amazing teams of vaccinators and GP practices have the capability and flexibility to deliver our vaccine supplies as they arrive into the region.

“Vaccine supplies will start to increase again from mid-March, and we are confident that everyone living in our three counties in the top 9 priority groups will be offered a vaccine by mid-April.

“In Hywel Dda we have an older population compared to some other health boards and so over 50% of our adult population will have been offered a vaccine by milestone 2.

“To be able to say that as we approach the anniversary of the first national lockdown is nothing short of extraordinary.

“And again, I must say thank you to everyone living in our three counties who continue to come forward in substantial numbers for the vaccine. Uptake remains remarkably high and we hope to see this continue through groups 5 to 9 and into group 10.”

People are asked, wherever possible, to use their own private transport to attend an appointment. Lifts can be accepted from someone in their household or support bubble, but not from anyone else due to the risk of transmission of the virus.

The health board has put in place transport support for anyone who may have difficulty attending their vaccination appointment. If you have no other means of travel, please contact the health board on 0300 303 8322 and we will be happy to assist.

Everyone in priority groups 1 to 4 should have received an offer of a vaccination. If you have not been contacted, or have changed your mind, please contact your GP at the earliest opportunity. No one will be left behind.

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Nolton Haven: Man hospitalised after getting into difficulties in sea

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A MAN was taken to hospital after getting into difficulties in the sea off Nolton Haven on Friday.

Emergency services were alerted at 2.40pm on February 26 by a 999 call to the control centre.

The Little Haven RNLI lifeboat, Broad Haven Coastguard, an ambulance crew and a Coastguard rescue helicopter assisted police in the operation.

The male casualty was stabilised on the beach and shortly before 4.30pm, was then transported to Withybush Hospital.

A police spokesman told The Herald: “We were called to a male who had got into difficulties in the water at Nolton Haven shortly before 3pm.

“He was taken to hospital by ambulance.”

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Cyclist killed on A40 was serving police officer, force confirms

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A CYCLIST who died after a crash with a van on the A40 in Carmarthenshire was a serving police officer with Dyfed-Powys Police, the force has confirmed in a statement to Herald.Wales.

The driver of the van involved in the crash, which happened on Thursday (Feb 25) has been arrested on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving, it was confirmed on Friday (Feb 26).

Police are investigating the fatal collision, which caused the road to be closed for 12 hours, and are asking for any witnesses to come forward by calling 101.

37-year-old Lynwen Thomas, who is a former student at Ysgol Bro Myrddin, Croes-y-Ceiliog, Carmarthen, was a sergeant and a very well-respected member of Dyfed-Powys Police.

A spokesperson for the police said in a statement: “Our thoughts are with her family, friends and colleagues, who have all been offered specialist support. We ask that family members are given the privacy they need at this difficult time.”

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