THE LEADER of Bridgend Council has described the dire financial situation local authorities across Wales are currently facing, saying they are by far the most difficult he has seen during his time in local government.
Long-standing councillor Huw David has been the leader of Bridgend County Borough Council since 2016, though he says the authority’s role has become a lot more difficult in recent times, with an increased demand for services on top of budget reductions and a cost-of-living crisis.
It comes after Bridgend Council projected an overspend of approximately £10 million at the end of 2023, with members calling the situation unprecedented and unsustainable with the leader adding that it will almost certainly result in a number of service cuts having to be made next year.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service Councillor David said: “There’s no doubt about it, it is the most difficult financial period in the history of Bridgend County Borough Council, and I would say in the history of the 22 local authorities in Wales, and that is the same across the UK.
“There are authorities virtually on a daily basis in England announcing they are on the cliff’s edge. We’ve seen Birmingham which is the biggest council not just in the UK but the biggest council in western Europe making that announcement, and I’ve never seen that in my 20 years in local government.
“There’s certainly a sense of urgency, and a sense that we have never seen the level of challenge that we have this year, and from speaking to very experienced leaders from other authorities and experienced officers, I would say that is the case right across Wales. There is real concern around how some local authorities balance the budgets.
“There is also a universal theme and that theme is around record pressures on services, primarily in social services, homelessness services, and for councils that provide home to school transport, that’s another big pressure as well.”
When discussing the difficulty of reducing an overspend on the council’s budget of almost £10 million, as well as setting a balanced budget for next year – which could potentially lead to an even bigger gap estimated to be around £20million – Councillor David said there would have to be a number of difficult steps taken moving forward.
These included the potential to reduce the number of council-run buildings in operation across the borough, as well as increasing fees to charged services, shortening services hours and even re-designing the way services are delivered. In some cases it will result in cuts to services altogether.
He said: “There are going to be difficult cuts to make. We try every year in the first instance to look for efficiency savings and we’ll do that again but it gets harder every year.
“For example we’ll continue to rationalise our estates, so we have fewer buildings which obviously cost money to run – so if we can have fewer buildings and deliver services more effectively we’ll try to do that in the first instance.
“Where we can continue to support people but support people in a different way, we’ll obviously try to do that. We will have to reconsider how we deliver some of the services, and finally because of the magnitude and the scale of the gap this year in the budget there will be some service reductions as well.”
The discussions with the Bridgend leader reflect the current concern from councils right across the country at the moment, and come after reports released by Cardiff University which suggested councils in Wales are currently on an “unsustainable path” with an overall funding gap which is estimated to reach £744m by 2027.
And while Cllr David, who was first voted in as a local councillor in the Cefn Cribwr ward in 2004 said the Welsh Government had been supportive during this period, he also said more would need to be done.
He said: “Welsh Government’s budget is set by the UK Government, and the UK Government are providing a real-term reduction to the budget for Welsh Government this year, so whilst the budget has increased, it’s whether or not it has increased by enough to cover inflation and the increase in demand for services.
“We have not seen the same things we’ve seen so far in England, and that is because up until now Welsh Government has supported us as much as they can, but their budget is not increasing by as much as it needs to and they’re having real-term cuts, so obviously there’s a limit to what they can do. It is certainly the most difficult period I’ve seen and every leader I speak to says the same.”
When asked if he was confident that Bridgend County Borough Council could continue to deliver a balanced budget that encompassed almost 800 services ranging from education and social services, to supporting the homeless, and implementing regeneration projects, he added: “We have to be confident because we are committed to doing it, we have a duty to balance the budget, and that is our number one priority to deliver.”
Bridgend Council will now prepare to announce its early stage proposals for the budget for 2024-25, with members of the public encouraged to give their opinions and engage with the process as much as they can.