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‘Most vulnerable children will suffer in education cuts’

A SENIOR Conwy councillor has warned the most vulnerable children will suffer when further cuts to the county’s education budget are made.

Conwy Council faces a £24.5m budget shortfall next year, meaning already-stretched services will have to endure further cuts.

Cabinet member for education Cllr Julie Fallon warned the most vulnerable would suffer and called out the UK and Welsh governments after the council’s leader explained subsequent low local government settlements – the amount the council receives each year – had resulted in £80.5m of cuts over 10 years.

But leader Cllr Charlie McCoubrey said a more notable statistic was that the council had lost 19% of its staff since 2015, in terms of staff numbers.

The discussions centred around a financial report and took place at a cabinet meeting at Bodlondeb on Tuesday.

Cllr McCoubrey explained while the council had tried to protect schools and social care, the two services now accounted for around 80% of Conwy’s service budget and would have to share the burden of cuts.

He said Conwy had received subsequent low government settlements from Welsh Government and had significantly less to spend per head than neighbouring Gwynedd and Denbighshire.

Conwy is assuming it will receive a 2.5% rise (an extra £4.9m), which is less than the average expected across Wales, in the next local government settlement, the draft of which is due to be announced on 20 December.

But cabinet member for adult services Cllr Penny Andow called on the public not to post “toxic messages” on Facebook, reminding residents councillors didn’t set a recent councillor pay increase themselves.

Cllr Andow also claimed the financial situation was not the fault of councillors.

The debate follows Conwy setting a 9.9% council tax rise last year, the highest in Wales, and slashing service budgets by 10% – with even schools being forced to make 5% cuts.

Cllr Fallon said: “We can’t really highlight enough the serious position that we are in.

“I think, as much as we can ask communities, the reality is we need the UK Government and Welsh Government to hear and understand that actually the cuts that have gone on for so many years now are to the point where it is going to have very significant consequences.

“I can speak from my portfolio, talking to schools and our education department over the last few weeks, trying to understand what the impact of these cuts will be.

“We are talking about the capacity to safeguard children.

“This is really significant post-Covid. That support is needed more than ever.

“But that is going to be the area where cuts are made.

“It is going to be the support staff that are typically helping these young people, many of whom are in crisis.”

She added: “I was at a meeting yesterday with a school where the number of young people with suicidal thoughts is ridiculous. It’s awful.

It’s absolutely heart-breaking.

“To think we would do anything to reduce the support we could offer them when what we should be doing is increasing it is crazy, and it is going to be our most vulnerable that suffer.”

Cllr Andow said the council needed the community’s support.

“I’d like to stress the independent remuneration (councillor pay rise set by an independent panel) has got nothing to do with us. We don’t make the suggestions”, she said.

“It is very dreary, and it is very difficult for everybody, and this is not a case of us overspending.

“It is a case of us trying to keep those essential services balancing.

“As adult and community portfolio holder, it is difficult in social care when we have so many pressures. We have so many staff leaving.

“We have 80 vacancies at the moment. Domiciliary care is very difficult to recruit. We are in critical times.

“And I feel – and I hope people don’t get offended by this – we are fighting a war without any ammunition.

“And I really hope that anyone listening to this and anyone who chooses to put toxic messages on Facebook realises that we as individuals are not responsible for the state we are in.”

She added: “We need help from communities.

“We need help from volunteer groups, and the public, we need help with your understanding. This is not a case of us overspending.”

Cllr McCoubrey said it was up to members whether they accepted a pay increase but added that the entire cost of members’ salaries was just 0.59% of the entire budget.

“Individual members will make their own decisions (on the pay rise), but even if they got rid of all of us, it wouldn’t make a substantial impact on our actual budgetary situation,” said Cllr McCoubrey.

The leader warned, though, that the council issuing a section 114 notice declaring itself bankrupt would make the situation worse.

He added: “If we don’t produce a balance budget, you’re subject then to a 114, and somebody externally will come in.

“There will be no extra money and could be very high levels of council tax, and there will be substantial cuts that will be made without any local knowledge or options to mitigate against this.”

Cllr McCoubrey proposed the cabinet backed the report, and this was seconded by Cllr Fallon and voted through.

Conwy must produce a balanced budget by February 29, 2024.

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