‘Austerity is not over’
RHONDDA Cynon Taf council leader Andrew Morgan today gives his verdict on 2018 and lays bare the financial challenges facing the authority in 2019.
TWELVE months can be a long time in local government.
With more than 600 services to run, a year in the life of Rhondda Cynon Taf council can be a pretty hectic one.
With councils across the UK under increasing financial pressure it is as important as ever to reflect properly on the ups and downs of the last year.
The recent state of the county borough debate gave the council leader Councillor Andrew Morgan the chance to take councillors through the big successes the authority has had in 2018.
But importantly it also gave councillors the opportunity to highlight where the council can improve and the challenges it faces going forward.
The council is facing a budget gap of £5.9m for 2019-20 with an assumed council tax rise of 3%.
Cllr Morgan told councillors: “Austerity is certainly not over. We are going into the ninth consecutive year.
“There is no priority larger and greater than the budget. If we don’t keep control of our finances we can’t deliver the services we need.”
He said the council had managed to make around £6m savings last year and he praised officers and staff for their “quite exceptional” efforts in delivering this.
He mentioned the small improvement in the provisional Welsh Government settlement of 0.3%.
Cllr Morgan said that when he was first elected they were getting rises of 5% and 6%.
“The demands and pressures have never been greater. The 3.3% [rise in council tax] last year was the lowest increase in Wales.
“It is the sixth lowest on average on what people pay for their services.
“Nobody likes paying it but we are doing our best to minimise the increase.”
He said that you can’t compare council tax bands because they are based on house prices which vary between areas.
Cllr Morgan said that this year they have spent £8m on school maintenance, £5m in capital spending, and an increase in the overall revenue budget of £2m.
He added that the individual schools budget had gone up by 9.9% since 2012-13 whilst other council budgets had reduced by 6.48%.
He also said that over 10 years the council has spent £12m on Welshmedium schools.
Cllr Morgan said the 21st Century Schools Programme projects which had been delivered, the £1.6m spent on reducing class sizes, and the additional funding for extra teachers in six schools as well as the plans for a new three-16 school in Pontypridd. He said: “Not one single year have we cut school budgets. The amount of additional funding we can put in does not meet the demand.”
He also mentioned the £1m teacher development grant saying “professional development is hugely important but my concern is that we have got to keep teachers in schools to keep teaching”.
Cllr Morgan said there had been a small dip in results this year but that was mainly down to changes in the curriculum.
Cllr Morgan said there had been £23.5m secured for highways spending which will result in fewer insurance claims from potholes and less spending on day-to-day maintenance.
He mentioned more than 150 carriageway schemes and in excess of 100 footway schemes that the council has delivered.
Cllr Morgan also highlighted the work they had done to repair road structures such as bridges, saying: “The time we would notice not having that investment is either when it falls down or it closes.
“Unless we deal with the issues some of our communities would get
He highlighted that 33 structures had been improved since 2011 with over £6m spent in the Rhonnda on schemes including Pont Rhondda and the Porth River Wall.
He went on to mention projects such as the A4119 dualling, the Llanharan Bypass and £1m extension to the Aberdare Bypass as well as the £200,000 looking in to the possibility of a Treorchy link road.
He praised the “massive effort” earlier this year of council staff in dealing with the snow on roads in RCT.
When it comes to town centre support, Cllr Morgan mentioned the various Business Improvement Districts and chambers of trade which continue top operate in various RCT towns.
He also highlighted the town centre maintenance grant with proposals to extend the scheme to Porth, Ferndale and Aberdare in the next year.
He said that £400,000 had been spent to help town centres put on Christmas events and that they had brought 247 properties back into use during the year.
Cllr Morgan highlighted the success of the [email protected] service which aims to get people out of hospital and back home and said it has been “quite exceptional”.
He said without the work that social care staff do that the Royal Glamorgan and Prince Charles hospitals would have faced “significant difficul- ties” last winter and staff should be commended.
Cllr Maureen Webber, the deputy leader of the council, said: “It is really pleasing to see so much positive investment. Austerity is continuing to impact on our budget.”
She mentioned the level of influence the council has with Welsh Government and said: “That’s only possible through good leadership. We are getting a lot of what we do right.”
Cllr Pauline Jarman, the leader of Plaid Cymru on the council, said that everything comes at a cost which is human as well as financial.
She said: “Over 350 people have lost their jobs. There are grounds for reducing senior management.
“Most jobs have been lost in education because of cuts in school funding leaving schools to battle against difficult budgets.
“Most who lost their jobs are women. The austerity tag is rubbing off on Welsh Government in its treatment of councils.
“Education is a statutory function. It is not measured by new schools. If we don’t have sufficient money it doesn’t matter if the walls are paved in gold and the ceilings encrusted in diamond.
“It is like having a Jaguar car and not having the fuel to run it.”
She also said the leader could have mentioned the gender pay gap and that it is time for the council to enter the 21st century when it comes to webcasting meetings.
But Cllr Morgan responded by saying: “School budgets were not cut. Cost pressures are rising more than money is available. We have to look at staff numbers.
“We have done very well to avoid compulsory redundancies.
“You (the opposition) don’t come up with any suggestions. I am not going to take lectures.
“We have been absolutely diligent to avoid signficant cuts and big council tax rises but still protect schools as best as we can.”
Cllr Geraint Davies of Plaid Cymru said the situation in the county borough was “out of our hands” and depends on Brexit.
He said: “If Brexit happens we are going to be poorer and there will be less resources for local government. I don’t want Brexit to happen.”
He raised transport issues at the top of the Rhondda Valley highlighted by a recent fatal crash in Stag Square in Treorchy.
He also raised the issue of the lack of cycle lanes in the north of the county borough but Cllr Morgan said active travel was not a fast process but there were plans being put together.
Rhondda Cynon Taf Council leader Andrew Morgan
Councillor Andrew Morgan
highlighted the town maintenance grant with proposals to extend the scheme to Aberdare in the next year
Councillor Morgan commended staff at the Royal Glamorgan hospital