CONWY councillors slammed the Welsh Government for offering a grant of £1.575m to pay towards new electric recycling vehicles whilst the council struggles to meet education and social service bills.
Cash-strapped Conwy faces a huge council tax rise and widespread service cuts after receiving the lowest local government settlement rise in Wales together with Gwynedd.
But whilst the council is busy trying to balance its books for 2024/25, the Welsh Government dropped a one-time non-negotiable take-it-or-leave it offer for Conwy to receive a grant of £1.575m.
The money will fund nine new recycling vehicles, some of which will be electric, helping Conwy meet Welsh Government carbon-emission targets.
But to receive the grant, Conwy was asked to approve a capital budget of £2.636m for the recycling vehicle replacements from its budget for 2024/25, in order to secure the £1.575m grant.
Conwy received the offer on January 12 and was told a final decision had to be made before January 31 or they face losing the money.
But Conwy is still planning its budget for the forthcoming year.
At a council meeting at Bodlondeb, angry councillors agreed to match-fund the grant but were angry they had been given little time to consider the matter or the potential cost implications of accepting.
Several councillors slammed Welsh Government, asking why they couldn’t find the money to help Conwy fund basic services – many of which are now under threat.
Councillors were warned by officers if they refused the offer, the authority could face having to find the money itself for any one of its 20 vehicles in its 13-year-old fleet, should one break down.
Cllr Mike Priestley said he was disappointed with the Welsh Government.
“So what’s disappointed me, if I have got this correct, is wouldn’t it be great if Welsh Government found money and gave it to Conwy to help assist with our revenue budget when things are really, really tight, so if they found that money, I would have liked to have received that, put it in our balances in our reserves,” he said.
“I will support this because it is the right thing to do, and we will save on fuel costs; we will reduce carbon (emissions) and taxing the vehicles, but I am disappointed that this government has found some money that basically I would have liked to put towards social services, education, and social care instead of…. We are being bounced. I think the money could have been better used in Conwy.”
Cllr Gareth Jones was nervous that the authority hadn’t had time to properly scrutinise the offer. “I fully understand the excitement of being offered a huge grant like this,” he said.
“I understand the need to clean up our fleet, and I understand the need to actually replace ageing vehicles.
“But I do feel really uncomfortable that we are actually being bounced into spending a significant amount of money in a really rushed and unplanned way. Because in my experience, the more rushed and short-term decisions we make the more chance we’ve actually got of making some bad decisions.”
He added: “From the information provided, I really don’t know whether this is a good or bad decision. I think it’s a good decision in the short term. I don’t know how it pans out for a five or ten-year period, as I certainly hope it doesn’t actually end up costing us jobs in other departments in the long run.”
Cllr Harry Saville said: “It is concerning that we are taking a decision like this short notice without any previous consideration by scrutiny committee or even cabinet.”
Cllr Anne McCaffrey said: “Obviously this year, with a £25m shortfall facing us in terms of balancing our budget for next year, we need to proceed with caution. I do understand the reverse argument that says we need to embrace this new technology and cost avoidance.”
She added: “It does feel like we’re putting the cart before the horse. We’ve got big decisions to make on 29 February. And the more decisions we make ahead of that is going to have implications on how many teachers we lose, how many things we stop doing, so we do need to make the right decisions at the right place (time).”
Councillors blame the ‘outdated and unfair’ Welsh Government funding formula for Conwy’s 2% local government settlement rise, this comparing to the Welsh average increase of 3.1%.
Schools could again see another budget cut of 5% or higher whilst Conwy is struggling to pay a social service bill for one of the oldest populations in the UK.
Cuts are proposed across the board with libraries, public toilets, and garden waste collection services all likely to be affected – and much more.
Consequently, the council has modelled for a council tax rise of 8%, 9%,10%, and 11%, with the final sum set to be agreed on February 29 as the authority faces a £25m black hole.
Leader Cllr Charlie McCoubrey said the £1.575m grant would be used to buy some electric vehicles but the council needed to have both traditional diesel and electric vehicles to serve the recycling needs of the county.
“We have a commitment to our carbon reduction,” he said.
“There is a place for electric vehicles, but we need to recognise in a rural area with our topography and the distances involved and the lack of charging infrastructure that it’s not something we are going to get to overnight, and we have to maintain those service levels.”
Officers warned councillors it was a take-it-or-leave-it grant offer, and Cllr Nigel Smith said the council needed to take the money or face paying for the vehicles themselves when a van broke down.
Cllr Chris Hughes proposed councillors voted in favour of accepting the grant. This was seconded by Cllr McCoubrey, and councillors voted in favour of accepting the grant.