Awesome or Awful? Only Time will Tell

1. General


(A) Well, Christmas and the New Year are now history. I hope that both proved enjoyable and kindly to you and yours, despite assorted cold spells and the snow and ice. Notwithstanding all of the difficulties of past while, we just have to get on and deal with what lies ahead for this year and those that will follow. I believe that most of you know me and my newsletters well enough by now to know that I do not engage in bull-dust or idle promises that I cannot keep. I have always tried to tell it as it is, to say what I mean and to mean what I say.


Sticking with that habit, let me get straight on and tell you that there are one or two county councillors, who are suggesting that cuts and economies are not needed, because the annual support settlement, for 2011 to 2012, from the Welsh Assembly Government, has turned out to be less punishing that we thought it would be, some few months back. They are wrong dangerously so! Read Section 2 below and you will understand why.


(B) I am sometimes known to state that I am not a Politician, but a Manager, trying as hard as I can to work for my Ward residents and best help manage a large county council organisation with over 9,000 employees, 151,000 customers and a multi-million £ annual turnover of cash. Recently my attention was drawn to the words of Groucho Marx, who, around the 1930s, remarked, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies!” Many a true word spoken in jest?


2. Next Year’s Funding (A) Revenue In real terms, for this current financial year of 2010 to 2011, the WAG handed out to us some £188Million for our Revenue Expenditure. That is the money that largely pays the county wage bill for around 9,000 people and provides all of our services, from Refuse Collection to Schooling and Social Services. For this coming year of 2011 to 2012, the Assembly has cut that sum by 1.7% or £3.2Million, leaving us with £184.8Million.


That is not as bad as we had thought and nowhere near as bad as the cuts across the border in England. For that we should truly be thankful. However, it is not simply a matter of us having to make up a shortfall of £3.2Million. To “stand still” as it were, at last year’s level of service delivery, we would need £188Million, plus the cost of living increase, say 3.5% by the middle of the next year. That 3.5% represents £6.58Million, which nobody is giving us. So, just to stand still as at last year, it has to be argued that Flintshire needs £188Million, plus £6.58Million, or a total of £194.5Million. However, that fails to take note of a steady increase in demand for services. Social Services alone have, this year, each month, received over 500 NEW cases requesting the provision of domiciliary care for older and vulnerable people. That service demand we have to try to satisfy, at some considerable additional cost, probably around £600,000 for the year, at my best estimate.


I wish that were the end of it, but it is not! The Assembly has decided to cap our charging for domiciliary care at £50:00 per week to any family. To help us, the Assembly has given us £400,000 for the coming year. However, last year our earnings from that work were £1.1Million. On just that one item, we have a £700,000 shortfall, which we have to “find” from somewhere. So, our basic income the next year is just that £184.8M that we have already mentioned. Against that, we know that we need £188M plus £6.58Million, plus that £700,000 domiciliary care shortfall, plus the funding for the extra domiciliary care demand that will descend upon us in the next financial year, say £600,000. That adds up to a total of £195.88Million as our probable expenditure in 2011-12.

None of you will need a calculator to work out that that presents Flintshire County Council with a foreseeable shortfall of £11.08Million for 2011-12. That is the shortfall between our foreseeable need for £195.88 Million and our funding from the WAG of £184.8 Million. That £11.08 Million shortfall we can clearly see staring us in the face, right now! That is why we shall have to make economies, revisions and cuts in non-essential services in the coming year, because we are required to deliver a balanced budget at every year end.


(B) Capital Our Capital Funding is what builds or repairs schools, highways and so forth. This coming year, the WAG has cut that by 19%. In real money, think of £10Million being cut to £8Million. However, because of the state of our school buildings and our roadways, we shall need all of that£10Million and probably more. The shortfall we shall have to make up by Prudential Borrowing. That we can properly do. However, there is a joker in the pack, because the financial rules make us pay the interest on Prudential Borrowing from our Revenue Account. At a borrowing rate of say 5% that adds another £100,000 on to our £11.08Million shortfall, making £11.18Million to find. That is why we have had to look very closely at everything that the council is doing and the cost of it. We need to serve you well and to spend every one of your pennies wisely. That we intend to do!


The County Council has to deliver a range of services that are its statutory liabilities. Those include Housing, Education, Social Services, Highways, Environmental Health, Refuse Collection and Disposal, to list but a few. It must deliver all of those, both in adequate quantity and at a satisfactory standard of service. However, the WAG, like Westminster, has brought in, year by year, fresh statutory duties for local authorities, often without disposing, in legal terms, of some other duties that have become obsolete. Some local authorities, if not all, have chosen to deliver additional services that have little or nothing to do with their core reason for existing, but which elected members and officers have decided were needed to extend or support a statutory service requirement, or one that might perhaps have been seen by elected members to be politically pleasing to their electorate. There is nothing secretive about this process.


The administration that I lead has to produce a balanced budget for this present and the next financial years. In order to do that, we shall have to pare back management costs, sharpen delivery systems, review front and back office arrangements and, where proper, cut non-statutory service delivery. We shall have to work in greater collaboration with neighbouring local authorities, which we are already doing, to some extent, in order to seek where and how we can work together for best effect, sharing officers, sharing offices and pooling budgets in certain disciplines. This process, of change and choices, is an open book. It is one which has involved discussions with every councillor, at workshops, via group meetings and by way of interviews with me and other Executive Members.

Right across the county, there is going to be pain. There is going to be hurt, upset and resentment. Those feelings will be real and so will the suffering be, for those employees, ratepayers and residents whose incomes will be diminished or totally lost, or for those whose support services are lessened or removed. I take no joy, no joy at all, in setting out the harsh realities of the situation that this local authority is facing. Neither will I stand idly by just shouting out that this is all the fault of those who have gone before us, of whatever political colour they might have been. Looking back and playing the blame game will not change what we now face one tiny weeny bit. Similarly, it is no use any of us burying our heads in the sand and pretending that all is well and all will be well, if we just stand still, bide our time and take no action at all. Doing nothing is not a choice that we have; unless we wish to make things worse!


3. Regenerating Buckley For well over a year, the Town Centre Regeneration Team at county hall, working with Buckley Town Councillors, sitting alongside Buckley businessmen, on a formal committee, has been working on seeing what can be done to re-invigorate the town centre. That includes trying to broaden the major retail store offer, so as to provide greater choice and better competition in prices. A little welcome progress has been made, but discreetly and out of the glare of publicity.

That is because of the matter of the asking price for whatever land might be of interest to any major retailer. Some, if not all, of the land possibly involved, is in private hands. Dealt with discreetly, the land price may well have been kept down to an acceptable and attractive minimum. Now, with the unwelcome glare of public meetings and multiple contacts going on, those who hold land are already starting to hike up their asking prices. One piece of such land, previously on offer for a reasonable sum, now suddenly shows a 50% increase in its asking price. Such a difference might well be the factor that drives interested parties away. No wonder the French have a saying that words are silver but silence is golden. That is possibly a lesson that the noisy ones need to learn.


4. Mortgage & Debt Matters Mortgage debt can be frightening. With monthly repayments due, arrears can stack up quickly and there is always the danger of repossession. If you, in these difficult times now and ahead, already have, or believe that you may yet encounter, mortgage payment problems, or rent arrears, please do not fail to act quickly to seek help. Do move early and fast to seek confidential advice from one or other of the free advisory agencies dealing with debt and financial problems. Speaking directly to your mortgage lender should be your first action. Your lender may also be able to point you to specialist advice agencies.

Additionally, the free services listed below extend their advice to credit card debt, personal loan debt, mortgages and all other forms of debt:- The Financial Services Authority (FSA) The FSA is the mortgage industry regulator, and publishes a variety of guides relating to mortgage repayments. This includes helpful advice on what to do should you be unable to pay off your mortgage. Citizens’ Advice Bureau (CAB) The Citizens’ Advice Bureau can help all consumers with housing problems and money problems. The National Debtline The National Debtline is a charity that offers free, independent and confidential advice including on mortgage arrears. Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS) The Consumer Credit Counselling Service is a charity that provides assistance in dealing with all kinds of debt. Shelter Shelter is a housing and homelessness charity with a variety of guides to avoiding repossession and mortgage arrears. Their website is information packed and useful to those borrowers who are worrying about their mortgage.


The New Medical Centre This is just a brief note for you to advise that the funding from the Welsh Assembly Government has been confirmed, the new, smaller design of the building has been approved and the necessary planning permissions have been granted.. It may not be in the location where we all wanted it, but at least and at last, it is going to get off the ground and begin to be seen as under construction, with a completion date by the middle of 2011. That at least is progress!


6. Betsi Cadwaladr North Wales Health Trust How this new entity is really going to work out, I just do not yet know. It started off with £86Million of funding shortfall for this present financial year and an urgent need to restructure itself in a radical way. HM Stanley Hospital at St. Asaph will be drastically re-configured as far as service delivery is concerned. Maternity services may dwindle from three locations to just one. The current habit of many of our Flintshire patients being directed to Chester for treatment could dwindle and may even cease and greater use will be made of Wrexham and other locations in Wales. Somehow the system will have to function with a current shortfall of 119 doctors in various disciplines.


The reasons for that situation are several and complex. That shortage gets worse as one heads Westward towards Anglesey. One worry is that in order to reach the particular service that they may require, patients will have to travel further than at present. That carries social and cost implications If you require any assistance accessing information for Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board please make contact, either by email at: or by contacting any of the following members of staff: Justine Parry Tel: 01978 346538 Angela Hanson Tel: 01978 727659 Wendy Hardman Tel: 01745 589128 Gillian Jones Tel: 01286 662798

As yet, the new entity does not appear to have any formal complaints policy in place, or any system of directly registering any complaints, objections, etc. On their website, one is promised in due course. However, for the present while, in the case of any cause for complaint, I suggest you use the information contacts listed above


7. Improving Police Accountability In July of this year, the UK Home Office published a consultation paper called, “Policing in the 21st Century: Reconnecting Police and the People”. That document sets out the UK Government’s plans for restoring the connection between the police and the public. One of the main planks of the plans is the creation of directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners. These elected officials will supposedly give the public a choice and strengthen the bond between the public and the police, through greater transparency and accountability.

The general idea is to remove bureaucracy, strengthen professional responsibility and get officers out and about into their local communities instead of being tied up in red tape, paperwork and offices. The intention is to abolish local Police Authorities and replace them with the new directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners. These new Commissioners will have five key roles:


* Representing and engaging with all those who live and work in the communities in their force area and identifying their policing needs.

* Setting priorities that meet those needs by agreeing a local strategic plan for the force.

* Holding the Chief Constable to account for achieving those priorities as efficiently and effectively as possible and playing a role in wider questions of community safety.

* Setting the force budget and setting the precept. (How much the force wants yearly from you and me!) That precept setting item is intended to be subject to local referendum.

* Appointing and where necessary, removing, the Chief Constable. To help monitor the new Police and Crime Commissioners, the intention is that new Police and Crime Panels will be set up in each force area, to scrutinise and assist the Commissioner.


This new set of proposals will seriously undermine the present role that county councillors have in policing matters. There is a serious risk that the present sound strategic relationship between police forces and local authorities may well be lost, thus undermining years of good work that has gone on and diminishing the successful partnership work in tackling crime and promoting community safety. The Welsh Assembly Government has requested permission to apply the new outline in a modified form, but, it is clear that, one way or another, the new Police and Crime Commissioners will appear in Wales in due course.


8. Road Gritting/Salting for Winter Last year, Flintshire did not run out of our salt/grit supplies, although we came perilously close to it. This year, with winter’s snow and ice appearing well before Christmas, even our additional supplies and arrangements have been seriously tested. However, for this year Wales is better prepared, with additional stocks in all counties and a national reserve available on top of that. Those supplies are, just as in previous years, designed for the purpose of keeping our trunk and main roads passable. Our primary aim has to be to keep the economy flowing. Despite that, it is recognised that a collective problem has been that of getting our vehicles from our own homes, off of our local estates and on to the relatively passable trunk and main roads. County will help, where it can, as much as it can, to make town centres safe underfoot and support vulnerable residents.


If you know of problems, please phone in about them, using our 01352 752121 phone number. As a reminder I have to advise residents that, in the case of another lengthy spell of bad weather, it will, once again, be ONLY the trunk and main roads that will be regularly treated. Therefore we private residents will need to use our judgement and perhaps try to be a little bit better prepared than we were last time around.


9. Road Condition and Potholes Despite the best efforts of our Highways Department, the condition of our local and estate roads is not as good as we would have wished as we head further into winter. If you are aware of potholes or other blemishes that represent a potential point of danger or damage, please take action. Reach for the phone and use the (01352) 701234 hotline to report such places. Nobody wishes to have children tumbling from pedal cycles, or riders from motorcycles, or for car drivers to suffer vehicle damage or worst of all, to lose control of their vehicle. Temporary repairs are much better than no repairs at all! Get phoning!


10. Car Parking Charges If there is one thing that unites all Buckley councillors, at Town and County level, it is our opposition to efforts over the years to impose car parking charges at all of the car parks controlled by Flintshire County Council. I do have to warn you all that, as part of the necessary intention to maximise the income from car parks throughout the county, there are proposals that the old area of Alyn and Deeside District should begin to see parking charges coming in with the start of the 2011-2012 Financial Year in April. I am sure that your local government representatives, including me, will steadfastly oppose such a move. Many of us believe that the Delyn District area should rather be relieved of such charges so that fairness exists and local shopping is encouraged. However, I cannot guarantee that our side will win that debate or any subsequent vote on the subject. You have been warned!


11. The Big Society & The Third Sector Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, in a speech in Liverpool last July called for the creation of what he called “The Big Society” as a vehicle upon which we may all travel towards a more citizen-centred society. He stated his belief that there were three essential strands to The Big Society. Those being:- First, Social Action. The success of the Big Society will depend on the daily decisions of millions of people – on them giving their time, effort, even money, to causes around them. So government cannot remain neutral on that – it must foster and support a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action. Second, Public Service Reform. We’ve got to get rid of the centralised bureaucracy that wastes money and undermines morale. In its place we’ve got to give professionals much more freedom and open up public services to new providers like charities, social enterprises and private companies so we get more innovation, diversity and responsiveness to public need. Third, Community Empowerment.


We need to create communities with oomph – neighbourhoods who are in charge of their own destiny, who feel that if they club together and get involved they can shape the world around them. I would welcome your views on what you think of that proposal and how you see it might be put into effect.


12. The Boundary Commission When the Boundary Commission, set up by the Welsh Assembly Government at the beginning of 2010, presented its first set of findings, one of the counties involved was Flintshire. The county was set to lose 10 county councillors, in time for the 2012 local government elections. Your Buckley Bistre East Ward was set to join with Bistre West Ward and one of the four county councillor seats was to disappear leaving the greater ward with only three representatives. Throughout Wales, some 12-15% of county councillors would have disappeared. Flintshire, unlike certain other counties, fought resolutely against those daft proposals that would have destroyed localism. Working closely with our Chief Executive and others, I was happy to lead that local opposition.


Thankfully, the Minister has now decided that the Boundary Commission’s work so far has not been what was expected of it. He has commenced an inquiry into their work and stated that there will now be no changes to boundaries before the local government elections of 2016. For the moment, sanity and localism have prevailed. Let us all hope that that situation remains.


13. The Old Buckley Baths Building I am regularly asked what is happening with the old baths building. Well, with a co-operative effort between the Town Council, the Coal Industry’s Social Welfare Organisation and Flintshire County Council, there is every hope that it can be converted into a multi-functional facility for the residents of Buckley, to be managed by a Charitable Trust. Once the Trust is set up, that body will be able to bid for something like £1.25Million of funding that will be required in order to draw up detailed plans, create a Business Case and then get on with finding the further money needed to convert the building for community use. There is a long way to go yet, but, I firmly believe that the project is viable, which is why it has my full support.


Meanwhile, we are all looking forward to the first, hopefully early signs of Spring and to the Easter Holidays in April. Until my next newsletter lands on your mat, may your dreams come true and your fears prove unfounded.


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