PLEDGES to build two skate parks, subsidise bus travel and upgrade play areas were among a flurry of budget announcements by the leader of Swansea Council, but they were questioned at a time when council tax went up by 5.95%.
Cllr Rob Stewart said £1 million would fund two skate parks, although no locations or time frame were given, and cover upgrades of 13 existing skate facilities in the county.
A £600,000 subsidy will continue free local bus travel during school holiday weekends, while £2 million will be spent upgrading playgrounds on top of £5 million already invested in this area.
The council tax hike will mean Band D households paying £1,549.08p from April – up from £1,462.10p currently – plus the South Wales Police precept, which is going up by 7.4%. Cllr Stewart said 5.95% put Swansea in the middle of what Wales’s 22 councils were planning in terms of council tax increases.
The Swansea Labour leader said inflation and other factors created budget pressures worth £61 million in 2023-24. On the plus side the council will get more Welsh Government money, which will fund three-quarter of the £561 million revenue budget, and it will raise more council tax income. But this still leaves a £25 million shortfall, which will mean savings and increases in things like parking charges.
Finance director and section 151 officer, Ben Smith, said a third of the 5.95% council tax increase was necessary because the council anticipated a greater shortfall in council tax collection due to the cost-of-living crisis.
“People will increasingly struggle to pay all their bills, and we will struggle to collect all our council tax,” said Mr Smith.
Cllr Stewart said the Labour administration had planned to raise council tax by 3.95% but that it was on the hook for an above-inflation increase in the Mid and West Wales Fire Service budget, which six councils including Swansea pay for. The fire service budget was set last month by the Mid and West Wales Fire Authority, which comprises councillors from the six authorities, and only one of its members – Cllr Lyndon Jones, of Swansea Conservatives – voted against it.
Cllr Stuart Rice, of the Uplands Party, put forward a costed amendment to raise council tax by 4.95%, not 5.95%. Referring to the cost-of-living crisis, he said: “Help people while they are in the eye of the storm”.
Cllr Rice said the funding announcements by the Labour leader showed “there is money in the bank”. The amendment also called on Labour not to increase social service charges for those eligible to pay by 10%, as planned.
The Liberal Democrats put forward a costed amendment to freeze rises in city centre parking charges for a year, and to reduce bus fares by 25% on certain bus routes.
Lib-Dem councillor Peter Black said businesses were still recovering from the Covid pandemic, and that freezing rises in car park charges would help them by encouraging more people into the city.
“There needs to be a bit more time to help them make the recovery,” he said.
Swansea Conservatives, meanwhile, called on chairs of a type of a council committee called corporate delivery committees not to receive additional pay on top of their councillor’s salary. They said the £60,000 saving this would create should be used to bolster resources in the council’s scrutiny and audit sections.
All the amendments failed. Cllr Louise Gibbard, cabinet member for care services, said the 10% rise in social services charges was not something that had been proposed with any glee, and that the 25% of those eligible to pay would be monitored and supported. Cllr Andrew Stevens, cabinet member for environment and infrastructure, said charges in council car parks hadn’t gone up since 2014. Cllr Stewart said reducing the council tax increase to 4.95% would create a recurring shortfall.
The £561 million net revenue budget for 2023-24, which was approved by a majority of councillors, is £37 million more than this year.
Beneficiaries are schools and the council’s education department, which receive £214 million, and social services, which gets £157 million. The place – or environment department – gets £62 million, which is £12 million less than this year’s, but Cllr Stewart said there would be extra investment in roads.
And a £15 million fund is being set up to help schools, care homes and leisure centres deal with higher energy costs. This is being created from a £20 million pot of reserves which had been earmarked for further post-Covid recovery in Swansea.
“It is a really significant budget,” said Cllr Stewart. “It’s a record amount of money in services – in education and care – a record amount of investment across the board.”
Councillors went on to approve a £105 million capital budget for 2023-24, including investment in new schools and City Deal projects.
Earlier in the meeting section 151 officer Mr Smith said £30 million of reserves was being used to bolster the revenue coffers this year and that this would be repeated in 2023-24.
He said higher energy costs and employee and teacher pay rises were eroding the council’s spending power.
Mr Smith said the uncertain financial outlook and 32 years in the job left him feeling like “an aged prizefighter” who relied on “muscle memory, trying to duck and dive the economic and financial blows and woes that are about”.
“They do say politics can be brutal – well I’m afraid budgets can be brutal for section 151 officers in local government,” he said.