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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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Pembroke Dock: Two in hospital following Fort Road car accident

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EMERGENCY SERVICES dealt with what has been described by a witness as a “horrific car accident” in the Pembroke Dock area on Wednesday night (Jun 12).

A 23-year-old woman, driving a black BMW, travelled down Fort Road at speed, hit a low wall, catapulting the vehicle some considerable distance across a picnic area. The vehicle ended up irreparably damaged on the beach – which was luckily not in use at the time – landing next to the old Cambridge Gun Tower.

No other vehicles seem to have been involved, police said.

The driver has been arrested but remains in hospital, one passenger is in a critical but stable condition, in Cardiff, and a second passenger sustained only minor injuries.

A spokesperson for Welsh Ambulance Service spokesperson said: “We were called at 10.45pm on Wednesday night (Jun 23), to reports of a road traffic accident near the Fort Road car park in Pembroke Dock.

“We attended the scene with one rapid response vehicle, two emergency ambulances and our Emergency Medical Retrieval and Transfer Service.

“Two people were taken to University Hospital Wales, Cardiff for further treatment.”

The police are appealing in the media for information following the crash.

An official statement from the police reads as follows: “We were called to Fort Road, Pembroke Dock, at around 10.45pm on Wednesday night to reports of a single-vehicle collision. Ambulance and fire service also attended.

“A 19-year-old man was taken to the Heath Hospital in Cardiff and remains in a critical but stable condition.

“A second passenger attended hospital for minor injuries but has since been discharged. A 23-year-old woman was arrested, and currently remains in hospital.

“Anyone who witnessed the collision but who has not yet spoken to us should get in touch by emailing 101@dyfed-powys.pnn.police.uk, visiting our website, or calling 101.

UPDATE: 24.06.2021, 15:47HRS

On Thursday (Jun 24) said that the female who was arrested was de-arrested because of the need for medical treatment, and is “no longer under arrest at this time.”

The police also added that their investigation was “still active”.

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Pembrokeshire call handler helps deliver Llanelli couple’s new baby

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A 999 CALL HANDLER from Pembrokeshire has helped deliver a Llanelli couple’s baby.

Father-of-two Chris Bassett, from Hook, answered the call from the Trust’s Clinical Contact Centre in Carmarthen, and whose instructions on loudspeaker enabled the pair to deliver their 8lb 1oz new arrival safely.

Thanks to Chris, Troy Smith, 34, and partner Abigail Jones, 33, delivered baby Arabella Dilys Smith in the bedroom of their Llanelli home.

Troy said: “I’ve never felt adrenaline like it but I knew I had to focus on the situation for Abigail and the baby’s sake.

“It all happened so quickly, but Chris’ voice on the other end of the phone kept us calm.”

Abigail, a teacher at Ysgol Carreg Hir in Briton Ferry, went into labour at around 10.00pm on Thursday, June 3, and made a trip to hospital, where nurses confirmed she was in the early stages.

The couple returned to their Pwll home, but their soon-to-be daughter had other ideas.

Troy said: “At around 4.30am, Abigail developed a lot of pain and said she had an urge to push.

“I thought, ‘Right, this is happening’ and phoned an ambulance because I knew I’d be delivering the baby right there and then.”

It was Chris, a former RAF Aerospace Systems Operator, who picked up the call in the early hours of Friday, June 4.

The 29-year-old, who has been with the Welsh Ambulance Service for 18 months, said: “As soon as I answered the call, it was obvious that Troy and Abigail were in distress, as anyone would be in that situation.

“The priority was to get Abigail in a comfortable position to deliver the baby safely.

“For me, it was about giving them clear instructions while trying to keep them both calm.”

Troy added: “I just did what came naturally. When you’re in that situation, you just do it.

“As soon as Arabella came, I felt this wave of relief and I just couldn’t believe how gorgeous she was.

“Chris was so professional and handled the situation really well.

“He gave us all the information and kept us calm.”

Ambulance crews arrived soon after, and took Abigail to Carmarthen’s Glangwili General Hospital, where she was treated for shock before being discharged the following day.

Abigail said: “The whole thing was petrifying because I just never expected to be having the baby at home, but we’re so grateful to Chris for helping us to deliver Arabella safely.”

Chris added: “In your role as a 999 call handler, you’re helping people in their darkest hour, but I’m just glad this call had a happy ending.

“This is the third baby I’ve helped to deliver during my time at the ambulance service, but the first one I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.”

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Covid causes partial school closure at Haverfordwest High VC

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A PARTIAL school closure is in force today at Haverfordwest High VC school after a pupil in year 9 has tested positive for coronavirus.

All students in year 9 must stay at home , isolate and await further instruction while the school completes all of the necessary Track and Trace processes.

In a statement released by the school, they said: “We have been informed that a Year 9 pupil has tested positive for COVID-19.

“We wish them a speedy recovery.

“As a precautionary measure and to enable us to complete all of the necessary Track and Trace processes, the school will be closed to Year 9 Pupils today.

“The school remains open to all other year groups.

“Until further notice, Year 9 students should stay at home and isolate until further instructions are given. Lessons for all other year groups will continue as usual. Unless your child is in Year 9 they should attend school.”

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