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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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Milford Haven: Apocalyptic scenes as work truck catches fire in Meyler Crescent

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A MILFORD HAVEN businessman says that he is “absolutely gutted”, after he lost his tipper truck in a dramatic fire overnight.

Callum Hicks, of Meyler Crescent, was woken just after 1am on Monday morning (Mar 1) to see his vehicle in flames, with fuel running down the street on fire.

The apocalyptic scenes brought neighbours out of their homes and the fire brigade was quickly called and put out the blaze.

At this time the police and fire brigade are not suspecting foul play, but in a telephone call to a Herald reporter Callum Hicks said that he thought it was impossible that the vehicle would just spontaneously combust.

Work van: Callum Hicks with his truck, which he says was his “pride and joy”

Explaining that he thought his truck had been set on fire deliberately, he said: “There was CCTV of the fire, but its a football pitch length away, with a white van parked blocking the view of the camera. There was not a clear uninterrupted view.”

“I parked the truck at 2pm on Sunday afternoon so it was 11 hours before the fire started. The vehicle was therefore cold, and locked up.”

Firefighters at the scene

The Herald has asked two mechanics, one of whom has worked on Transit vans for decades. The first said: “It is very unlikely that a vehicle like this would catch fire on it’s own – its impossible – I am 99.9% sure that this was arson.”

The second, a specialist in vehicle electronics said: “There are so many fuses and fail safes its highly unlikely for diesel vans to burst into flames like this without some kind of catalyst.”

Burned out shell: The vehicle after the fire

“There have been issues regarding Transits in the past, even a product recall involving a fire risk from a towing module. But, the chances are a million to one of it catching fire after being parked up for almost twelve hours. It just doesn’t happen.”

The Herald asked Callum Hicks if he could think of anyone who may want to torch his truck. He said that he could not think of anyone who would do such a thing.

Commenting on the police handling of the matter, he said: “They told my missus, Rhianna Pearce, that they were not taking matters further because it was just an accident – its not!”

“I have been in trouble with the police before, and they know I am a bit of a boy, but I think this is the reason that the police are not looking into this properly.

“At the end of the day this was a large fire in a residential area, lives could have been in danger. I have lost thousands because I was insured third-party only and I do not have cover for fire.

Dyfed-Powys Police and Mid & West Wales Fire and Rescue Service have been asked for a comment.

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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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