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Latest on Swansea City Council’s budget cut challenge

Swansea Council's Guildhall headquarters (Pic: Richard Youle)

THE LEADER of Swansea Council was repeatedly challenged about the need to make budget cuts at a cabinet meeting, and ended the exchange by saying: “We will now move on from fantasy to reality.”

Cllr Rob Stewart was questioned by representatives of The Socialist Party and Swansea Trades Council about the Labour administration’s 2024-25 budget proposals, why more money in reserves couldn’t be used to avoid savings measures, and why Swansea’s expenditure per pupil appeared to be the second lowest of Wales’s 22 councils.

One of the questioners, Linda Thraves, of the Socialist Party, claimed a recent budget consultation which only 386 people had responded to was an “ineffective tick-box exercise” and a “sham”.

Cabinet papers included a letter from a headteachers’ forum, which said Swansea’s spending per pupil had fallen to 21st out of 22 in Wales and warned that school reserves could be exhausted by the end of next financial year. The letter also said headteachers recognised the pressures facing the council and appreciated the Labour administration’s “relative prioritisation” of education spending.

Cllr Stewart said he and cabinet member for education, Cllr Robert Smith, had challenged the spending per pupil ranking as it hadn’t, he said, included a significant sum of money provided to schools for energy costs. He also said schools in Swansea were set to receive 6.4% more money next year than currently, while social services was in line to get 8.9% more.

“The money that’s going in (to schools) is significant and unmatched, I think, with other authorities in Wales,” said Cllr Stewart.

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In total around £52 million is being added to next year’s budget, but £25 million of savings will need to be made to balance the books.

More than half of the savings are to be achieved by increasing various fees and charges.  This means the overall net budget will be £27million higher, and part of this will be funded by a 5.99% rise in council tax. Expenditure will also be bolstered by a continuing use of money in reserves, although Cllr Stewart said this couldn’t go on and on.

Not implementing savings, he said, would mean the council not being able to set a balanced budget, which it has to do, risking effective bankruptcy as has happened to a small number of councils in England. “This administration is not prepared to set an illegal budget,” he said.

On the budget consultation, the Swansea Labour leader said it had asked people about the decisions that the council planned to make and that, unlike many local authorities, this did not include closing libraries and community centres, stopping expenditure on roads, cutting street lighting, or introducing monthly black bag collections. “That’s why there’s very little in the consultation,” he said.

The meeting went on to hear that Swansea Council was in line to receive a late funding boost of some £1.1 million from the Welsh Government, plus a smaller sum for social services. Cllr Stewart proposed using £400,000 of the £1.1 million to subsidise free weekend bus travel in the school holidays, with the remaining £700,000 to start replenishing an education reserve. The subsidised bus travel has been very popular in recent years.

The budget proposals have been scrutinised by cross-party council panels and committees, and opposition leader, Cllr Chris Holley, presented the findings at cabinet. One subject of concern, he said, was a reduction in the number of “local area co-ordinators”, who help people in need of care and identify and support those dealing with isolation, among other things. “We feel they make a significant difference to people’s lives,” said Cllr Holley.

The meeting heard there was uncertainty about grants, which fund some of the local area co-ordinator posts, although council chiefs said they would try to maintain provision.

Cabinet approved the revenue budget proposals, and then agreed a £96 million capital spending programme for 2024-25. This programme includes £18 million to restore the former Hafod Copperworks laboratory building, £13 million to continue the conversion of the former BHS store building on the corner of Oxford Street and Princess Way into a community hub, £12 million for the ongoing Mumbles seawall project, £3 million for a new car park at Swansea Vale, £2.7 million to complete a new office complex on The Kingsway, and £2 million for a solar farm at the former Tir John landfill site, Port Tennant. Work is also expected to start on a major upgrade of Castle Square in 2024-25.

Cabinet members also approved housing budgets, and a 6% hike in social service charges. This would mean, for example, domiciliary care charges going up from £21.87p per hour to £23.18p per hour. Full council will debate all the proposals and set the 2024-25 budget at a meeting on March 6.

Ben Smith, the council’s finance director, said: “It’s undoubtedly challenging times, but not the end of days.” Mr Smith also said he remained “entirely relaxed” about the council’s level of borrowing.

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