Incomparable or in Chaos?

1. General

On the 11th May, 2010, at the commencement of the new municipal year of 2010-2011, the 45-strong coalition of Independent, LibDem and Conservative members which forms the present political administration, re-elected me as Leader of the county.  I am very grateful for their continuing support and very much aware of the burden of responsibility that that appointment carries with it.  One of the risks for any ward councillor engaging at that level is that of losing contact with the pavement and the people of the ward.   If any of you ever gets to feel that my head is in the clouds and my feet have left the ground, please tell me about it, promptly and loudly! 

In my last newsletter, just before Christmas, I did tell you that locally and nationally there are tough times ahead.  UK plc is broke!  This current financial year of 2010 to 2011 will be our stepping-stone into harder times.  For the next financial year of 2011 to 2012, there is a need to reduce the county’s expenditure by between £8 Million at best and £12 Million or more at worst, in order to make the books balance.  That is simply because the provision of funding that every county council in Wales receives, annually, from the Welsh Assembly Government, is going to dwindle, year by year, until around 2017-18. 

By 2017-18, the actual quantity of cash from the WAG will be somewhere around that which it was in 2002-3.  Definitely not a comforting prospect for any of us!

All of you who live in Flintshire will be affected by the need for this local authority to economize, to cut away any wasteful activities, any un-necessary paid positions and to begin to look towards some form of prioritization in the delivery of the services that we shall be able to afford to undertake.  There will be no “Sacred Cows” in this exercise.  Every service that this local authority delivers, including both Education and Social Services, is in the process of being examined, re-considered, re-shaped and slimmed down to the best, leanest and most directly focused form that can be found for it.  Flintshire, as an organization, cannot afford to be wasteful in any way or in any amount over the next several years.  If you are aware of waste in our system, tell me about it! 

On the matter of what this county can and cannot afford, let me start off by setting out where our financial resources come from and what the quantity is presently. 

We have a number of ways in which we have income coming in:-    

     1)  Money from the WAG. as Rates Support Grant.                    +- £145 Million.
     2)  Non Domestic (Business) Rates                                             +-   £42 Million      
     3)  Community Charge payments.                                               +-   £53 Million
     4)  Specific Grants from WAG, not available for County use     +-   £35 Million    
     5)  Money earned from services to the public.                             +-     £5 Million
                                     Total of around £280 Million

How Have we Lately Been Spending it For You?

      A typical recent year would look something like:
      Housing and Social Services                                                      +-      £55 Million
      Lifelong Learning (Education)                                                   +-    £110 Million
      Environment  (Highways, including Winter Maintenance,
                               Planning, Public Protection, Regeneration)       +-     £34 Million
      Corporate Services  (Legal and Human Resources, IT)             +-      £17 Million
      Grant Monies from WAG, targeted specifically by them           +-     £35 Million
      Theatre Clwyd                                                                             +-       £1 Million
      Central & Corporate Finance                                                       +-    £21 Million
      Fire Service                                                                                  +-      £7 Million
                                 Total of around £280 Million

If, as it will, our income dwindles, so we shall have to cut back on the outgoings. That will be done by economical financial housekeeping first.  If that is insufficient; then by trimming non-statutory activities that are carried out at cost to us, and then, lastly, by prioritizing and/or limiting, service delivery.   That is the ugly reality of what we are being forced into by the mismanagement of UK’s national finances in recent years.

2.  Just How Bad is Bad?

The previous government advised us of £52Billion of future annual cuts.  Now, via the recent Budget, the new ruling Coalition Government of UK has added another £30Billion of cuts.    At the moment, those figures are just that, figures at government level. What you and I need to know is just how those figures translate into the services each local authority delivers for the public.   We really do need, not just want, to know what is ahead of us and to be able to plan accordingly for it. Without some certainty, we ordinary people cannot sensibly plan our lives for the years ahead.  That is what the people up top seem to forget, that ordinary folks like you and me do have lives to live too.  Maybe not at super expense account level, but, we all have to plan, as far as we can, for future years.  How secure are our jobs?  What jobs will there be in future years?  Do I need a study course to re-train or up-grade my skills? Can we afford to have another child?  What is University going to cost us if our child gets there?  Can we afford to up-grade to a larger house because our family has grown from tot age to teen age? Can we get a decent price for our semi-detached if we want to buy a bungalow because the kids have moved on and the stairs do nasty things to arthritic knees and hips?

These are the realities of ordinary lives that decision-makers may lose sight of.   All I know is that there seems little certainty about what precise level of austerity we are faced with over the next few years.  We can now only await the outcomes from The Government Spending Review set for October.   That will give us all a better picture of exactly where the impending financial axe will fall.

3.   Housing Revenue Account

There are moves afoot across the border in England to change the rules on council housing.  The effect will be to create convergence between Council House Rents and the rents charged by Registered Social Landlords, such as Clwyd Alyn, Wales & West, Penaf, etc.  The rents charged by Registered Social Landlords are higher than the rents charged by Local Authorities for council housing.  The latest UK policy means that county council rents will rise a few percentages above inflation each year so that the gap narrows and, eventually, by somewhere about 2015 or 2016, there will be equality of charges for equal housing.   There is little doubt that here in Wales we shall see the same route being taken.   If you are living in a council house or flat, watch this space.

There are also growing signs that the decision-makers in Westminster have finally worked out that there is, nationally, a real shortage of housing that is genuinely affordable for first time buyers and those on the lower end of the earnings scale.  It is beginning to look as though they are moving towards allowing county councils to keep more of the rents from council houses and to allow them to begin building more Social Housing, in order to address the growing waiting lists of decent, hardworking people who simply cannot afford to enter into the private housing market to purchase their own property. A figure of 10,000 new council houses is being bandied about.  That total across the UK is barely a drop in the ocean, but it is at least a move in the right direction.   Let us hope that the WAG does not lag behind in this matter.

Not long ago, at a public meeting in Wrexham, I challenged the WAG Housing Minister to tell me exactly what new house price was “affordable” in her view.  I pointed out that many of my constituents presently have to pay 65-70% of their monthly earnings, from both working partners, just to keep a roof over their heads. I told her rather bluntly that 15% off of the price of a new house costing £200,000 did not make it affordable to the average working family.  It did not surprise me that she had no answer to that simple question. What she did was what all politicians do when faced with an uncomfortable question.  She equivocated and moved rapidly on to the next, hopefully more comfortable, question.  I was not impressed, nor were many others in the audience and neither should you be.

4.    Mortgage or Rent Arrears?

Councillors like me are here for everyone. To that end I need to make sure that you are all aware of the existence of the Housing Debt Helpline Wales, which is available on 0800 107 1340.   If any of you already have rent or mortgage debts, or are struggling to pay either, make that phone call, now!

5.   Hospitals, Health and Care

In a recent liaison meeting with the CEO and Chairman of the North Wales Health Trust, now known as the Betsi Cadwaladr Glyndwr University North Wales Health Board, information was given out that the new organisation wishes to deliver services for acute illnesses, such as strokes and heart attacks via three “centres of excellence” dotted around the region.  Word was passed that neo-natal and children’s services will be undergoing a re-organization.  We were advised that major hospitals will diminish in size as treatment is, “wrapped around the patient at home” and that treatment of non-acute illnesses will be centred on 14 “localities” that they have decided upon.  Each “locality” will be a population of about 60,000 people.  As of date of going to press, Flintshire County Council has not been advised of where our expected three local areas will be centred upon.   Their representatives also advised us that there would be a need to re-negotiate over the matter that certain hospitals in England relied on Wales to provide something like 40% of their patient input.   We did discuss the problems that would be created by their stated policy of “no redundancies” among managers at a time when local government in general is having to drastically down-size to meet government demands for cash savings. 

We also asked how they are intending to manage when they are something like 83 doctors short across the region. We are still waiting for the answers to those questions.   What did become very clear was that in order to save money, buildings would be closed, patients would be kept in hospital for less time than in past years and that the NHS would be working far more closely with Local Authority Social Services Departments than ever before. It was also in their minds that hospitals should no longer be called by that name, but should be known as something like “Medical Treatment Centres.”   I think I am now waiting for the day when a surgeon might advise someone that they were not going into the Medical Treatment Centre for an operation, but for an ”examination and re-adjustment of the physical condition and placement of certain portions of their anatomy.”  Oh boy!

6.    The New Medical Centre

Well, you have all looked and listened as this sorry saga has unfolded over the last several years.  Everyone in Buckley wanted the new medical centre to be built on Jubilee Road, close to the Somerfields store building. However, the WAG decided that the new building should be located on the site of the old Belmont School.  As was required of me in my role of Leader of Flintshire County Council, who nominally owned the land, I signed off the papers authorizing the sale of the land.  In accordance with WAG arrangements, it was sold for less than best value.    Outline planning permission was granted in May.  Now it is up to the developer and the Health Board to get on and finalise their plans for the building.

7.   The Boundary Commission

A few months ago, the WAG decided that there was need for a review of the number of county councillors in Wales.  They had concerns about how many people one county councillor was representing in one county, compared to another.  Somebody down south was worried that some councillors in places like Cardiff were representing nearly 5000 voters, while some councillors in others were representing only 912 voters.  The WAG set up a boundary commission, consisting of a few worthy individuals, paid around £250 each per day, to go scooting around Wales, asking questions, making calculations and recommending certain adjustments to the Minister, Carl Sergeant.  Four counties were chosen as the pilots for the exercise.  Flintshire was one of them.  Peculiarly, one of the rules of engagement was that the commission could not alter the boundaries of any county council ward.  However, they were allowed to recommend the joining of existing wards.

A few weeks back, Flintshire received the initial findings of the commission.  Those findings recommended that the total of your county councillors should fall from the existing 70 to 60 and almost totally wiped out single councillor wards in favour of large wards shared by 2, 3, or even 4 councillors.   For Bistre East, the ward has presently 2 county councillors, me and Richard Jones.  The commission has recommended that Bistre West Ward, represented presently by Cllrs Neville Phillips and Ron Hampson, should be joined together with Bistre East, to make one ward and that one county councillor should be dropped.  For the rest of Buckley, they are recommending that Pentrobin Ward (Cllrs Hutchinson and Peers) and Little Mountain Ward (Cllr. Carol Ellis) should also be joined into one large ward, but that that large ward should retain all three county council seats. The overall impression so far is that this is simply another cost-cutting exercise out of the WAG, designed to further diminish the “local” aspect of Local Government.  In particular, it goes firmly against government’s stated wish to see a more diverse representation of the community in local government.  With “enlarged wards,” the advantage has to be with organized political parties, with teams of members who can support their chosen candidates.  It will clearly disadvantage any independent candidate.  It will also work very badly against anyone who is less than fully able to walk, in order to leaflet and canvas over the greater ward areas now proposed.    Now that the commission has finished its exercise on the four pilot counties, it is proceeding to carry out the same exercise on the other eighteen counties in Wales.  There is little doubt that 12-14% of county councillors throughout Wales will be recommended for the chop at the 2012 local government elections, if the Minister accepts the final recommendations.   If you are not happy with the proposals for your ward, kindly contact the Boundary Commission for Wales on their website at www.boundarycommissionforwales and tell them of your displeasure.  If you are not computer equipped, phone Buckley Town Council on 01244 544540 and register any objection with the Town Clerk, Martin Wright, or one of the other staff members.  If you are happy about it, let it be!

8.   Collaboration

Continuing on that theme of the need to save money in the operating of local government at county council level, during last year the WAG passed “The Local Government Measure.  That new “Local Government Measure,” in plain language, gave the WAG the power to tell us, at county council level, what to do, how to do it and where and when as well.    It damned near gave them the ability to tell us where to stick it too!

Whatever, with our over-riding need to cut costs, it is essential that county councils do collaborate across borders.  To help that along, the 6 local authorities of North Wales have created the North Wales Regional Partnership Board.  That involves Anglesy, Gwynedd, Conwy, Denbighshire, Wrexham and Flintshire.   By pooling our efforts and resources over assorted aspects of our activities, we believe that we can save something like one quarter of the £8-£12 Million per year that each county needs to save, each year, over the next few years.

The kind of joint activity includes the provision of Agency Staff.  That involves Wrexham, Denbighshire and Flintshire and has already saved us close on £100,000 each over the past year.  Conwy and Gwynedd have agreed to have one single Director of Highways between them, thus sharing the saving of a salary around £80,000 per annum.  This collaborative activity may at times involve just two counties, or at others, all six.  It may be that some of our collaborative savings will be in small amounts, but, remember what Granny told us all when we were small, “You take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves!”  That wisdom works well for both Pocket Money and County Council Budgets.  It is one that I intend to remember well, on your behalf.

9.    Planning Portal

If you have any planning applications to submit, or are interested in matters of planning in general, do go on line and take a look at  where you will find how you can now make a planning application to any local planning authority anywhere in the UK or even find out the details of planning applications that have been submitted anywhere in the UK. The entire process can now be undertaken in this electronic format, saving time, effort, hundreds of sheets of paper and most of all, expense for all concerned.  It is just one small step forward into the modern, electronic and technological age.  Theoretically, any one of you could, by following the correct procedure and being willing to pay the necessary planning application fee, apply for and receive, planning permission to erect a MacDonalds in the garden of Buckingham Palace.  I am advised that actually getting it built and operating there would be another matter!  

10.    Dog Fouling

If at first you don’t succeed…….!   Well, this one has been a bit of a disappointment.  You will recall that more than two years back, the new administration that I lead promised that we would put a Dog Warden in place to deal with the dog fouling.  That promise we duly honoured.  £35,000 of your money went into the budget for that purpose.  However, our Environmental Officers considered that just one pair of feet on the ground was not going to have much effect in the entire area of the county.  Because of that, an agreement was reached that we would provide financial support to the police force, so that the Police Community Support Officers could be equipped with books of offences tickets that county had prepared, to enable all of them to deal with dog fouling incidents throughout the county.   Those books of tickets were produced by county last December.   However, no agreement has been reached with the police force.

Thus, so far, not a single ticket has been issued and no fines imposed.  As a result, the most commonly complained of environmental matter in Flintshire goes on unchecked, which does not amuse me at all.  I have expressed my displeasure to the officers concerned and am now looking for more positive results, rapidly!

That brings me back to my belief that the only way to really deal with this matter is to re-introduce dog licenses.  The more I have talked this over with responsible dog owners, breeders and animal charities, the more support I find for that step.  So, I am now starting to work towards that aim.  It will not put any burden on your Community Charge, because the activity will be designed to be cost neutral on the county accounts.  The license fee will be set at a level that will pay for the staff and vehicles needed to make the system work.  No profit, no loss.  It will probably take more than a year to get this up and running, but I shall get busy on it.

11.  You Cannot Trust a Single Word That They Say!!!

An ancient wisdom advises us that our personally given word should be our bond.  I have no argument with that.  I was brought up to tell it as it is, to say what I mean and to mean what I say.  That I have always tried to do!   However, our present world is full of “Spin,” “Hype” and “Public Relations People,” whose job is to sell “The right image” of this or that celebrity or politician, to the public at large, regardless of the truth.    When the Welsh Assembly Government signed up to an agreement with the Welsh Local Government Association, that, from November of 2009 there should be a “New Understanding” between the two parties that would mean less confrontation, more consultation and a more conciliatory attitude between the two, it was hoped that it heralded the dawning of a period of mutual respect between county councils, their representative organization, which is the Welsh Local Government Association and the Welsh Assembly Government.   Some hopes!  We are now a bare eight months on and twice recently the WAG has trampled all over the agreed arrangements that they would inform us and fully consult with us, before making decisions and issuing regulations or instructions that effect us councillors and you, the people we represent.                                         

That is not the way to establish or maintain trust and mutual respect.

12.    Coronation Gardens

Some of you may have noticed that the public amenity of Coronation Gardens was formally re-opened on 1st April, 2010.    It was Tidy Towns money, made available through county council, which provided the funding.  It is now a relatively quiet and pleasant green oasis in a busy part of our town.  There are a couple of benches to sit on, in case the grass is damp.  A serious effort has been made to return the gardens to the original layout plan in terms of plant beds and plants, with roses, lavender
and other fragrant shrubs.  The commemorative “Optec” plaque has been moved from the centre of the gardens to the back wall and the decorative cherry tree that had been destroyed by mindless vandals has been replaced.   The gardens are now locked each evening so that better control exists.   Although the gardens are located just across the road from this ward, I hope that this ward’s residents will enjoy them every bit as much as others.

13.    The State of Our Roads

Nobody who drives a car, rides a cycle or motorcycle, or even walks on, our county roadways at present, can be happy at the state
the roads are in.   There are in all too many places where there are potholes galore; from minor blemishes to some likely to cause actual damage if encountered at the wrong angle for an ankle or the wrong speed for a motorized vehicle.   Last winter’s weather conditions were the worst for thirty years.  Some road surfaces have proved less robust than others.  Some of the more exposed parts of our road network have suffered most.  Whatever, the county authority has to try to put matters right.   That is going to be a process slower and more costly than any of us might like. Slinging just a shovel-full of tarmac into a deepening pothole can only be a temporary measure.  Here again, the WAG has not been quite up front.  Earlier on in the year we all heard the announcement that the WAG was giving “an additional” £2.5Million to help counties repair damaged roads.  Flintshire’s share of that generosity is around £150k.  That sum, welcome though it is, will not go far.  However, what the WAG has not said quite as loudly is that they have cut the nation’s basic Highways budget for this year, from £15Million to £5Million.

The most important point is that the county needs to know where there is a need for temporary and maybe permanent repair work to be carried out.   Please do not hesitate to get on to the hotline for road repairs, which is 01352 701234, to report potholes and other blemishes on the road surface. We really do need to know how bad the problem is and you folks, as you travel around and about in the county, are the best people to tell us because you are encountering the blemishes day by day.

14.   Castle Cement Health Inquiry

I am sure that every one of you will be aware of the recent commencement of an Inquiry, authorized by the Welsh Assembly Government, into the possible and/or actual effects of the Padeswood Cement works on the health of the community living around and about that heavy industrial site.   As one of those who has campaigned long and hard over this issue and matters of environmental degradation in general, I welcome the inquiry and the fact that I have been granted a seat at the inquiry table.   The public deserves some openness, some honesty, and some accountability in this matter.  I will do my very best to see that such is delivered.



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