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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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Health

NHS performance: Ambulances tied up as hospitals burst at the seams

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  • A NEW set of Welsh NHS performance data was released today (Thursday, June 20), and it contains more bad news.

The Welsh Government described the data as “disappointing”.

WG “LACKS GRIP” ON FUNDAMENTALS

Sam Rowlands MS, the Conservatives’ Shadow Health Minister, said: “These atrocious statistics show that the NHS is going backwards under Labour.

“Two-year waiting lists have increased for the first time in two years.

“Keir Starmer has called Labour-run Wales his blueprint for what a UK Labour Government would look like: these figures are a stark warning for the whole UK.”

Mabon ap Gwynfor MS, Plaid Cymru’s health spokesperson, said: “Labour’s complete mismanagement of the NHS in Wales has left us with waiting lists at the highest on record, targets for diagnosis and treatment are being consistently missed, and people are getting stranded in A&E departments for hours on end.

“It’s no wonder that we have such astronomical waiting times when the government has failed to deal with problems in primary care and social care.

“Until the government gets to grip with these fundamental problems, then waiting lists will continue to climb.”

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We have made it a priority to reduce long waiting times, and today, the Cabinet Secretary for Health met with health board chairs to instruct them to redouble their efforts to tackle these.

“These figures show the NHS is continuing to manage incredible demand for urgent and emergency care – the number of immediately life-threatening 999 calls in May was 25% higher than the previous year, and demand is nearly two-and-a-half times higher than pre-pandemic levels.”

THE LOCAL PICTURE: HOSPITALS

Over 30% of patients waiting to start treatment in the Hywel Dda UHB area have been waiting for over 36 weeks.

The Health Board has the second-highest proportion of the population waiting to start therapy. In practical terms, that means that around 4,000 people are yet to get the therapy they need.

The number of patients told they did not have it fell. However, the number of patients starting treatment has remained stable for years.

With rising demand for cancer diagnosis and treatment and no improvement in the numbers starting treatment, performance against the target for treating cancer dropped.

At least 75% of patients should start treatment within 62 days of first being suspected of cancer.

Only 42% of cancer patients in the Hywel Dda UHB area started treatment within the target time. To meet a revised target of 80% by 2026, Hywel Dda UHB will have to increase its performance by almost 100%.

The Welsh Government’s performance target for patients waiting to start treatment for less than 26 weeks is 95%.

No Health Board is close to meeting that target, although Hywel Dda UHB is the second-best performer—just over 50% of patients start treatment within six months.

Despite a dramatic fall in the number of inpatient beds in Hywel Dda UHB’s hospitals over the last six years, the number of inpatient admissions rose sharply in April, placing even greater pressure on chronically overstretched staff and resources.

THE LOCAL PICTURE: AMBULANCES

The percentage of red emergency calls being met within eight minutes fell across Wales.

The ambulance performance target is for 65% of all red calls to be attended to within eight minutes.

Across Wales in May, there were 5,110 red (life-threatening) calls to the ambulance service, 13.9% of all calls.

45.8% of red calls received an emergency response within eight minutes, 2.2 percentage points lower than in April.

In the Hywel Dda UHB area, 47.6% of red calls received an emergency response within 8 minutes, compared to a sharply reduced number of calls in the red category.

Examining more detailed data for the Hywel Dda UHB area demonstrates the pressure on emergency hospital admissions and the knock-on effect on the ambulance service.

When an ambulance takes a patient to hospital, admission is supposed to take place within 15 minutes of arrival, with the ambulance returning to service 15 minutes after that.

In the Hywel Dda UHB area, ambulances were tied up beyond those markers for almost 4,000 hours beyond expected admission and return to on-call.

Fewer than 18% of patients conveyed to a Major Injury Department were admitted within 15 minutes. For Major Acute Units, that turnaround was even worse, at barely 15.5%.

Once cleared, however, well over 80% of ambulances were back out on call.

Diving deeper into the data, we see that just over 1,700 patients travelled by ambulance to major emergency, major acute, and maternity and mental health units.

By a very crude piece of arithmetic, we can calculate that if those 1700 patients accounted for the 4000 hours of “lost time”, the handover stats would be even more shocking, with an average turnover of over two hours.

Moreover, localised data shows that 35.6% of all people who are attended by an ambulance go to a hospital using other means of transport.

A CRISIS ACROSS THE BOARD

The issue could not be clearer: delays at hospitals are keeping ambulances off the road.

The upward pressure on A&E services caused by the collapse of out-of-hours primary care (GPs, etc) is driving up attendance at all hospital A&Es.

The lack of beds is driving up a backlog of treatment. The lack of clinical staff means more junior staff fulfil tasks -including initial diagnoses- formerly taken by clinicians and registered nurses. Consolidating rural services on an urban model is making things worse.

Whatever the cure for the disastrous condition of the Welsh NHS, money will not be enough to turn around decades of decline.

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Community

New health concerns over Withyhedge Landfill site emissions

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LEVELS of a potentially harmful gas emitted by the Withyhedge Landfill Site have been recorded above World Health Organization (WHO) guideline levels, according to a recent report. Public Health Wales (PHW) conducted a health risk assessment on air quality data collected between 1 March and 3 April 2024 in the surrounding area.

The data indicates that during March and April, hydrogen sulphide, a colourless gas with a distinctive “eggy” smell, exceeded the WHO’s odour annoyance guideline. PHW warns that exposure to such odours can cause symptoms like headaches, nausea, dizziness, watery eyes, stuffy nose, irritated throat, cough or wheeze, sleep disturbances, and stress.

PHW stresses the importance of addressing the source of these offsite odours to mitigate potential health impacts on the local community. Despite an enforcement deadline passing last month, residents continue to report gas and odour issues in their homes daily.

“These are common reactions to unpleasant smells, and these effects should usually pass once the odour has dissipated,” PHW stated. “The long-term health risk is low.”

In response to the health risk assessment, PHW advises residents to keep doors and windows closed when the odours are present and seek medical advice if they feel unwell. However, they caution against blocking windows or vents completely, as these are crucial for ventilation and controlling dampness. Once the outdoor smell subsides, opening windows and doors can help eliminate any remaining odours inside.

Work to cap the landfill site has been completed, and PHW has welcomed plans to install static air monitoring equipment around the site to capture more detailed data. Dr. Sarah Jones, a consultant in environmental public health for PHW, acknowledged the stress and anxiety local residents are experiencing due to the odours. She emphasised the importance of resolving the issue swiftly and assured that the health risk assessment would be updated as new data becomes available.

Gaynor Toft, Chair of the Air Quality Group for the Multi-Agency Incident Management team, noted that the risk assessment from PHW is being used to refine and develop the air quality monitoring programme. Suitable locations for static monitoring equipment are being identified to ensure robust data collection for future assessments.

Huwel Manley of Natural Resources Wales (NRW) confirmed that NRW would continue to use its regulatory powers to drive improvements at the site and address the causes of the odour affecting the community. NRW had given RML, the company operating the landfill, until mid-May to undertake several remedial actions to control gas emissions.

The Pembrokeshire Herald has reached out to NRW for a detailed update on the current situation at the site. The community remains hopeful for a swift resolution to these ongoing health and environmental concerns.

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Community

Local projects benefit from Sustainable Development Fund grants

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SEVEN local projects have benefited from over £70,000 of funding through the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority’s Sustainable Development Fund (SDF).

The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority’s Sustainable Development Fund supports community-led projects in and around the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park that contribute towards a reduction in carbon and help respond to the climate emergency.

In the latest round of funding, grants were awarded to Southern Roots Organics, Narberth Museum, and the Crymych Arms Community Pub to install Solar PV systems. Additionally, the Narberth and District Community and Sports Association received funding to upgrade their existing Solar PV system and improve the energy efficiency of their squash court lighting. As well as generating new low-carbon electricity and offsetting higher carbon grid electricity consumption, these projects will reduce ongoing electricity costs for these organisations.

Cosheston Community Hall was another beneficiary, receiving support from the Fund to construct a bike shed. This project aims to encourage more people to cycle to the Hall, promoting sustainable travel within the community.

In Marloes, SDF funding has paved the way for the village clock to be retrofitted with low-energy and Dark-Skies-friendly illumination, which will reduce both energy consumption and light pollution in the area.

The VC Gallery also received funding to upgrade to more energy-efficient windows and doors, which will create a warmer community space and contribute to lower carbon emissions.

Jamie Leatham from Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority said: “These grants represent our continued commitment to addressing the Climate Emergency, supporting community-led projects that improve sustainability and reduce carbon emissions.”

“By funding initiatives like Solar PV installations, energy-efficiency upgrades, and sustainable transportation solutions, we are helping our communities to reduce emissions, generate their own low-carbon energy, and raise awareness to promote a greener, more resilient future for the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.”

The Sustainable Development Fund consists of money allocated from the Welsh Government Sustainable Landscapes Sustainable Places Fund.

Further information can be found at www.pembrokeshirecoast.wales/sustainable-development-fund.

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