Council tax: Why am I paying more if local services are being cut?

Sharp End Presenter Rob Osborne meets those in charge of the council's purse strings

Councils are responsible for managing and funding a huge range of our public services - from libraries and leisure centres to social care and schools.

With the ongoing cost pressures and increasing demand, council leaders are faced with difficult decisions about what they can afford.

Budgets are currently being drawn up for the next financial year. So who funds councils across Wales and how will services be affected?

Councils are currently carrying out consultations on budgets and crunching the numbers. Credit: Sharp End

Cllr Andrew Morgan, leader of Rhondda Cynon Taf Council, says the overall gap councils are facing this year is "huge".

"It’s on a scale we’ve not seen before," he told ITV Wales' Sharp End programme.

Rhondda Cynon Taf Council provides around 650 services to its residents, many of which have been slimmed down over the past decade to deal with austerity measures, it says.

Cllr Morgan says they will be forced to axe services and cut jobs if they don't plug their funding gap. Credit: ITV Wales

Cllr Morgan said: "In the eight years since I’ve been leader we’ve stripped senior management as lean as possible. We’ve cut out as much back office as possible to try to provide as much funding to the front end of services.

"But it’s getting more challenging and while we’re in a position in this council to say we will have a balanced budget in the next few weeks, next year the provisional budget settlement is going to be 3.1% unless there’s extra funding from UK government. 

"It’s a really difficult message to say to residents to ask me, 'why am I paying more council tax when services are getting cut?'"

A large proportion of RCT's funding comes from the government, with council tax making up only 20% of its income.

But the increase in energy prices means difficult decisions need to be made about what services remain open to the public.

"Running a sports centre is going to increase by around £400,000-500,000 more a year because of gas and electric costs," Cllr Morgan said.

"The worst year for austerity for me was around £24m gap in RCT, even with the extra funding (from Welsh Government) next year our budget gap is £38m.

"There’s only so many times you can slim a service down or make it more efficient and then you get to the point where you think, ‘is that service viable and do you actually stop that service?’

"I really do fear that over the next few years the savings councils have made to get us to this point will not be enough going forward and we could in the future get to a position where the council’s really have to prioritise funding for those absolute essential services with very few others."

Adam Johannes, from Cardiff People's Assembly, has campaigned to keep libraries open. Credit: Sharp End

Caerphilly Council and Cardiff Council are among those which has proposed changes to library services.

Sean Morgan, Leader of Caerphilly Council, said: "We've undergone 10 years of austerity which in itself stripped out £100m in real terms out of the budget of Caerphilly County Council.

"We've significantly made cuts over the years and slowly adjusted to having less funding and now we are hit with more than twice the budget gap we've ever seen even through austerity. We absolutely don't want to do these things - we have to do these things."

Adam Johannes, of the People's Assembly, says librarians play a vital role in the community and the public shouldn't accept the prioritising of one service over another.

"The reality is, we need it all. We need libraries and leisure centres and museums and parks and free school meals and these are all affordable in a rich country so we want the councillors to fight for us.

"(Librarians) do all kinds of work to help the community, people with adult literacy problems who come in with documents or a random member of the public might come in and say ‘I need information about this, can you recommend me a book?’ or it might be the old person who lives alone and is lonely who just goes into the library to be around people to have a conversation with someone… there’s so many things that aren’t really recognised."

Ann Davey's limited mobility means she relies on the local meals on wheels service in Tonypandy, Rhondda Cynon Taf. Credit: Sharp End

Meals on wheels is another service which may be affected. There's fears it could be axed in a bid to save money.

But a huge area that requires local authority funding is social services, which have been stretched over the last 10 years.

Abyd Quinn-Aziz, from the British Association of Social Workers, fears children are at increased risk if further cuts are to take place.

He said: "I see social workers who are really struggling with their caseload. They want to do the right thing and they don't have time to do their work properly.

"They're already stressed about the work they're doing - and any further cuts will make things worse and worse."Good social work is preventative work - getting involved early on.  What's happening is we're getting involved later and later when it comes to a crisis. At that point, families can't really help themselves. Their children may be removed or become looked after or go into institutions.

Abyd Quinn-Aziz, from the British Association of Social Workers, fears children are at increased risk if further cuts are to take place. Credit: Sharp End

Mr Quinn-Aziz says there's been an increase in the number of looked-after children - children who are cared for by the local authority - which adds to a council's expenditure.

"There are parents out there who can't afford to look after their children or to care for them in a way that is good enough," he said. "Because social workers can't do preventative work, families are getting into crisis.

"Children are getting hurt or are being neglected and that results in children being looked after. And of course, that raises the cost financially and the cost to those children. Growing up in care isn't the worst thing in the world but it isn't the best thing in the world.

Mr Quinn-Aziz says politicians going along with cuts and agreeing that there's not enough money "doesn't wash" and urges them to "listen to the professionals" when making budget decisions.

Cllr Morgan said his council, Rhondda Cynon Taf, had a "really good" settlement from the Welsh Government this time around.

"It’s by far the highest settlement we’ve had since devolution. Realistically over the next few years with continued pressures and inflation on 10% as it is now, if we continue to see the cost of energy, the demand on services - we’re going to need substantial uplifts in funding for the foreseeable future.

"If social services aren’t funded, the NHS will not survive, the NHS and social services go hand in hand."

The Welsh Government said it gave councils the "best possible" settlement it could. Rebecca Evans MS told Sharp End that difficult decisions in local government are inevitable.

She said: "Our budget here in Wales across this three year spending review period is worth three billion pounds less than understood originally, and that's because of the impact of inflation."

A UK Government spokesperson said: "The Welsh Government received its largest-ever budget settlement of £18bn a year - an extra £2.5bn a year - in 2021. And as a result of the 2022 Autumn Budget the Welsh Government will now receive an additional £1.2 billion over 2023-24 and 2024-25.

"The UK Government works closely with the Welsh Government to ensure it is resourced to deliver the services, like local authorities, for which it has responsibility."

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