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Councils respond to budget cuts

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dronecouncilWEST WALES’ local authorities have cried ‘foul’ over the funding arrangements announced for the next financial year by the Welsh Government.

In common with all rural councils in Wales, Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, and Pembrokeshire have all been told that their budgets will be cut to a greater extent than those of more urban councils. In addition, critics of the settlement have not been slow to point out that not only is the smallest budget cut for an individual local authority Cardiff’s, but that the largest sums per head of population in terms of local government expenditure are concentrated on Welsh Labour’s Valleys heartland. In an unusual turn of events, West Wales’ councils were already consulting on their budgets for next year before their own financial settlements from the Welsh Government were announced.

This has caused some confusion among members of the public, who now appear to be responding to their own individual council’s proposals on a basis that has been superseded by the Welsh Government announcement. The Welsh Government’s budget was delayed by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s decision to delay the Autumn Statement and tie it in with announcements on Government expenditure. Among one off budget pressures already factored into this year’s local authority budget forecasts are the introduction of the National Living Wage, changes to National Insurance, and alterations to pension rules. The cuts to the Revenue Support Grant, which funds local authority expenditure, do not take account of those measures’ impacts on Council budgets. Meanwhile, members of the public are being encouraged to comment on potential changes to local services on Pembrokeshire County Council’s social media pages. Over £25m in savings have already been made in the past few years but substantial savings will also need to be made in the next three to four years.

Around 40 budget reduction ideas are being considered as part of a consultation on the budget for 2016 – 2017 and beyond, which the Council is currently running on its website. Cllr Jamie Adams, Leader of Pembrokeshire County Council, said: “We will be facing substantial budget pressures in 2016 – 2017, which means we need to look at making changes to services that many people use regularly. “It is important that local people take advantage of the opportunity to give their feedback in order to help inform the tough decisions that Council will have to make in the coming months. “Encouraging debate and feedback via social media is not something that we’ve tried to this extent before and I think that it provides a fairly easy way for people to comment on potential changes to important local services.” On the Welsh Government’s financial settlement for the next financial year, in which Pembrokeshire face a 2.6% cut, Jamie Adams, said: “As a rural local authority, we seem to be particularly badly hit, with just three Councils suffering worse settlements than Pembrokeshire. “I look forward to some discussions with the Welsh Government to try and redress some of the balance.”

Carmarthenshire : ‘better than anticipated ’

Carmarthenshire County Council Deputy Leader and Executive Board Member for Resources Cllr David Jenkins said: “The settlement from Welsh Government of £251,685m for next year equates to a 1% decrease on the amount received last year on a like for like basis. We were planning for a 3.3% decrease, bearing in mind that every 1% increase / decrease equates to £2.5m. “Whilst the headline figure is better than we anticipated, we need to accommodate the particular pressures placed on us including validation such as inflation and more specifically this year a £4.1m increase in National Insurance payments.” Even though the cut to Carmarthenshire was not as deep as had been feared, Cllr Jenkins nonetheless sounded a warning note: “As good as the news is it still represents a cut in the authority’s overall budget and bearing in mind there was a £2.1m shortfall in our current budget cut proposals we will still be looking for savings from relevant departments which we are currently consulting on with the public. “We are also still awaiting the full details from Welsh Government in terms of protection for education and social services. “The settlement is more favourable than we were planning but that said we still need to deliver efficiency savings of £12m.”

Ceredigion : Councillors will have to ma ke difficult decisions

Ceredigion County Council will see a cut of 3.5% to its funding from Welsh Government for the financial year 2016-17 – one of the highest to any local authority in Wales. The announcement will mean that savings in the region of at least 6% in the Council’s budget are required, as expenditure increases have to be met whilst funding levels have decreased. The Council has already made savings of £20m over the last three years, and was working towards making savings of £25m over the next three years. However, this cut will potentially mean the Council will need to find significant additional savings over the next three years. Leader of the Council, Councillor Ellen ap Gwynn said: “Yet again, rural communities are suffering compared to urban ones. The Council is suffering one of the largest cuts to any local authority budget for 2016- 17, which will result in massive pressure on Councillors to make very difficult decisions.” The money from Welsh Government has been shared among Councils according to population size and age, and deprivation levels within that local authority. A major restructure and a programme of service transformation aimed at changing how the Council is organised and works has been in place since 2013. Despite this, further cuts to services is now inevitable, as the scope to make more efficiency savings gets harder to achieve year on year.

We must avoid England ’s fate : WLGA

The Deputy Leader of the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), Cllr Aaron Shotton said: “We are also still awaiting the full details from Welsh Government in terms of protection for the system used to fund local councils in Wales is based on a complex array of grant arrangements and while many Welsh councils will today cautiously welcome the Welsh Government’s draft budget for its focus on preventative public services such as social care, we await further detail of how the budget can help to alleviate some of the mounting pressures on critical local services. “We have been clear that there is a need to rewrite the rulebook on how our councils are funded if we are to avoid a similar situation to that in England, where local public services have been cut to the bone and a number of councils face the very real possibility of being unable to meet even their most basic statutory duties. The budget announcement offers a glimmer of hope that a different reality can be written for vital local public services in Wales.”

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Three kayakers assisted by St Davids inshore lifeboat crew

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WHILST on exercise, Tuesday (June 22), St Davids In-shore Lifeboat was tasked by the coastguard at 3:15pm to assist three kayakers off St Davids Head.

The volunteer crew made way to the casualties and once one scene could see that one of the kayakers had made their way around the headland to the safer waters of Whitesands Bay.

The party had paddled out from Whitesands Beach when the tide had been ebbing and made there way North around St Davids Head. When the tide turned a wind against tide situation occurred on the headland causing 1.5m choppy seas and 5 knot current preventing the other two kayakers from returning back into Whitesands Bay, a member of the public had spotted the situation and called the Coastguard.

The crew assisted the remaining two kayakers around the headland one at a time by taking them on-board the lifeboat and around the headland. Once the party was reunited in the safety of Whitesands Bay they were escorted back towards the beach where RNLI lifeguards were informed and expecting their arrival.

The crew returned to exercise and complete its crew assessments with the on board assessor before rehousing at around 4:30pm.

When going out on kayaks always wear a lifejacket, check tides and weather, and bring a means to call for help, on 999 and ask for the Coastguard.

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Green hydrogen electrolyser and car refueler arrive at Milford Waterfront

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PEMBROKESHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL says it is leading the way in renewable energy with a collaborative £4.5 million project exploring the vital role hydrogen could play in a decarbonised energy future.

Milford Haven : Energy Kingdom (MH:EK) is a two-year ‘detailed design’ project, completing in 2022, exploring what a renewable energy based Smart Local Energy System could look like for the Milford Haven Waterway – including the concept of a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (HFCEV).

The aim is to gather detailed insight into the whole energy system around the Waterway, looking at how to make, using and distributing hydrogen financially viable within the different energy sectors of buildings, industry, power and transport.

The MH:EK team will investigate the potential of local renewable energy, including solar, onshore wind, future offshore wind and biomass for decarbonised gas transition.

One element of the project involves a consumer trial of two Riversimple ‘Rasa’ HFCEV’s. The MH:EK team is building a green hydrogen electrolyser and refueler on Milford Waterfront – and this will be used to produce green hydrogen on site to fuel the two trial HFCEV’s.

The project will demonstrate the practical application of hydrogen technology. The aim is to test the feasibility of two hydrogen powered Rasa cars. They will be built by Welsh company Riversimple, and operate as fleet cars in and around the Haven.

Pembrokeshire County Councillor Cris Tomos, Cabinet Member for the Environment and Welsh Language, said: ‘We welcome the progress made by the partnership, particularly in view of recent news that new petrol and diesel cars will not be sold in the UK after 2030. This innovative approach will help us to switch to a low carbon future and promoting sustainable transport as we respond to the climate change emergency.’

Work is underway and should be operational for the trial in July. A hydrogen-ready smart hybrid heating system is also being designed and will be installed and tested in an operational Port building.

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Council’s building maintenance teams to resume non-emergency responsive repairs

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THE HOUSING Building Maintenance teams within Pembrokeshire County Council are now able to re-commence non-emergency responsive repairs to customers’ homes around the County.

Lockdown has prevented tradesmen and women from entering homes to carry out anything other than emergency repairs for many months but the PCC Contact Centre is now able to take calls from customers to request a non-emergency service in their homes once more.

The Contact Centre receives around 38,000 building maintenance related service requests each year and even throughout lockdown Building Maintenance have proudly maintained a 99.2% success rate in responding to emergency repairs within 24hours since restrictions came into force.

Covid has caused a large disruption to the service and while the authority is now in a position to re-open phone lines to routine responsive repairs, a delay in providing that service is inevitable as the backlog is worked through but the authority is working hard to meet the demand.

Backlog is likely to take several months and is dependent on a number of factors including the numbers of repair requests received, availability of materials and contractors.

PCC currently employs 64 tradesmen and women directly and has a considerable number of contractors on its framework to undertake a wide range of maintenance works and Building Maintenance are in the process of tendering a New Minor Works Framework.

All maintenance employees and contractors will continue to work under strict guidelines in people’s homes to ensure that all safety and social distancing measures are adhered to.

The Housing Building Maintenance service is also in the final stages of implementing ‘Repair Finder’ which will enable Contact Centre staff to diagnose the faults in customer’s homes far quicker and more accurately than before, which will in turn ensure that Building Maintenance are better informed and resourced ahead of arriving at the property to carry out the repair.

This is expected to reduce the length of calls to the Contact Centre and subsequently reduce call-waiting times.

The ‘Repair Finder’ tool is expected to be available later in the year and will soon offer residents direct access to an online version which will enable them to report responsive repairs themselves.

Once trialled and released, service requests can be logged by the tenant via the Council’s ‘Housing Online’ portal.

When residents report a problem within their home via the Call Centre or ‘Repair Finder’, they will receive text message alerts informing them of the timescales within which they can expect the repair to be made.

Cabinet member for Housing, Cllr Michelle Bateman said: “We’re under no illusion that lockdown measures have caused a major disruption to the building maintenance service.

“We’re receiving new requests now on top of those that have been on standby during the Covid restrictions. Pembrokeshire residents have shown tremendous patience and understanding of services that have been stretched throughout the crisis so we’re counting on their ongoing support and we hope they appreciate that it will take a period of time to get back to where we were.

“People can be assured that we are working very hard to bring back the outstanding levels of service we provided before Covid and it’s things like ‘Repair Finder’ that will help make this possible going forward.

“With one in every six employed people in Pembrokeshire working for the local authority, it’s important to remember that we are very much in this together”.

If you wish to report a repair to your home you can call the Contact Centre on 01437 764551.

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