Rough Waters Ahead, Safe Harbour Beyond

1. General

If ever there was a bad time to be the Leader of the county council, I think everyone would agree that it is right now.  There are times when I find myself reflecting upon Winston Churchill’s honest, but dire, warning to the nation when appointed Prime Minister at the beginning of the Second World War.  I can assure you that this county will not get down to the “Blood, Sweat and Tears” that Churchill rightly foresaw.  However, serious problems do face us as individuals, as local communities and together as a county.

In simple language, demands upon the county services are rising, at a time when costs are rising too.   Alongside that, our resources, particularly that of financial support from the Welsh Assembly Government, are dwindling.  Within that overall scenario there is a need to face up to the impacts of a greater number of older people within our community, alongside decreasing numbers of young folks and a need to better educate, skill and re-skill our county workforce so that we can, individually and collectively, broaden our offerings and develop our earnings.   All of that within a time when the international financial climate is the worst since 1984 and environmental and climate change uncertainties add further burdens, threats – and just maybe, more opportunities also – if we are prepared to grasp them.

So, what can I offer you within that harsh and challenging outlook?  Nothing more than, or nothing less than, determination, total effort and absolute integrity, in fighting for your individual, your local community’s and your county’s needs, rights and entitlements.

2. That Health Care Issue

I know! We all wanted it to go into the centre of our town.  If we, townspeople and local councillors, had had our way, there it would have gone.  However, do please register and remember that you residents, alongside us councillors, had no say in the matter at all, when decisions had to be made.   The decision, made solely between the new North Wales Health Trust, the Welsh Assembly Government and the chosen Developer, has now been made, finally and irrevocably.  The new health centre will be built on the site of the now demolished Ysgol Belmont.  There will of course now be a full Planning process, with investigation of every aspect, including those of roadway layout, parking, access and public transport to and from that location.   My final comment must be that not all of the medical practices in Buckley have agreed to move to that location.

3. Schools

(1)    The closure of Ysgol Belmont is hardly what our local community would have wished for, but, the decision was made and implemented under the previous county administration.   Perhaps it is no surprise that the new combined school complex  ended up in Flint.  Whatever, it is now up to the present administration to ensure that the new facilities really are “21st Century Schools” and that all of those who pass through them have the very best value added to their natural abilities.   That way those children, our future, will be best equipped to face times that will be very different from those that this older generation has had to deal with and survive through.    It is my intention to see that those children are properly equipped, mentally and physically, to do the very best for themselves and for their generation once they leave school or university, whichever..

(2)   Professor Hawker, Educational Advisor to the Welsh Assembly Government, has stipulated, somewhat arbitrarily I feel, that every school in Wales that has less than 92 pupils, should automatically close.  I am glad to say that the Coalition Administration that I lead has a rather more thoughtful policy.   We acknowledge that with fewer births being recorded, there will be spare seats in some schools, particularly among the rural schools.  However, we are intent upon sustaining our small rural communities, not dealing them any final “death blow” by way of any automatic school closure.  We shall investigate every possible way of keeping such schools open and viable, using every option we have, before we get to any point of consulting about closures.   If that disappoints the WAG and their appointed advisor, then so be it.  The next decade is likely to be one of much disappointment all around.

4. Community Charge

In rough figures, what the county receives from the WAG is four times greater than the amount of cash collected by the county from the community charge.  That means that every time the WAG cuts 1% from its financial support to the county, if, and I repeat IF, this county administration were to try to compensate by digging further into YOUR pockets, there would need to be a 4% increase in our bill to you.  At this point, please remember that as well as being Leader, I am also the Executive Member for Finance and Asset Management.  So, I can assure you that the Executive Member for Finance and Asset Management will be guiding his fellow Executive Members and the Leader, to stick firmly with our current Medium Term Financial Strategy, which calls for level increases of Community Charge at 3.30% per annum during the lifetime of this administration, which should be up to and including 2012.

5. Financial support from the WAG

(1)   Each year, the Welsh Assembly Government provides the bulk of the cash that each county in Wales needs to pay its way.  There is also an Annual Capital Expenditure Grant from the WAG.   Those two supports, along with whatever monies this county actually earns from services such as Planning, along with your Community Charge, makes up the greatest part of our total income.   Since 2001, although the cash made available to counties has been on the increase as a trend, by no means has it been generous, or even fully adequate to keep pace with increasing service demands. 

In that time, by comparison, both the National Health Services and the Assembly itself have received more generous settlements.  That perhaps is how the WAG has grown from some 2000 persons when it started to the 6000 that it now employs.  However, I digress!  Let’s get back to this coming Financial Year (2010-2011) and our own county funding.   We shall not get the definitive figures until after this document has gone to print, but the provisional, or indicative, figures are already known.   This coming financial year, 2010-11, the county will receive a nominal 2.8% increase in its Revenue Support Grant.

That is not as good as we had hoped, nor as bad as we had feared.  However, that 2.8% includes “transfers in,” or previous additional grant aid now included in this year’s headline financial support.   That means we are receiving a real increase of 1.8%, which means we shall have to make greater efficiencies in operations.  That we are determined to do!

(2)   The final part of our total income is provided by the WAG by way of hypothecated grants.  By “hypothecated” it means that the money comes solely for a specific purpose, be it for a new school, to support rural bus services, for the Strategy for Older People, or for Special Classes for non Welsh speakers.  There is a serious danger in these grants.  They are usually provided to test a need for some service or another and are very useful for that purpose.  However, they are inevitably time limited, say for one, three or five years.  The difficulty is that, having proved the need for a particular service, with residents getting used to the service being there, the WAG then decides to end the grant, inevitably without putting any compensatory money into the Revenue Support Grant.

To quote you just one example, the WAG has now informed Flintshire, and other counties, that the Integrated Services Grant will end as of March 2011.   That is a grant that has allowed Flintshire and others, for nearly ten years, to work closely with the Health Services on projects where a combined activity works best. To WAG, the grant is a cost of £10 Million per annum.  That sum they are intent upon saving. Our share of that grant is worth £343,000 per annum to this county.  We now have to plot, plan and prepare to cut the services involved, fire the employees engaged upon them and leave users in the lurch, to dig deeper into YOUR pockets (which we do not intend to do!) or to somehow “find” that soon to be missing sum of money by greater economies within our own organization.

The problem is, that as a county organization, although we are intent upon achieving a lean, efficient and best value for money operating style, we cannot go on finding “efficiency savings” for ever. Unless something changes, in the foreseeable future, service cuts will become inevitable.  Does anyone want that?  Not this Leader, that is for certain!  Do read on.

6. Greater Collaboration - the Road Ahead

The six Leaders and six Chief Executives of the Counties of North Wales meet regularly.  We all believe that if service cuts are to be avoided, we have to get our services aligned, wherever there is sensible reason and good purpose in doing so.  We are not talking about Anglesy, Gwynedd, Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire and Wrexham becoming one gigantic “Super County.”    That simply would not work for several good reasons.  What we are talking about is collaboration that suits our individual and collective needs.  There may be services or projects that two counties only will work together upon.  There will, hopefully, be other services or projects that all can agree to get together over.   Localism will not be lost.  Economies of scale will be benefited from and considerable economies and savings made, if we are brave enough and visionary enough to see and grasp the opportunity.

You may be wondering why I headed this “Greater Collaboration….?”  The answer is that of recent years, some collaboration already exists.  Our six counties are already moving in collaborative activities and making savings in doing so. Some examples are:- 

1)   North Wales Residual Waste Treatment Plant (All Except Wrexham).
2)   Managed Agency Staff Solution (Denbighshire, Flintshire,Wrexham) 

3)   Social Services Emergency Duty Team (Flintshire & Wrexham) 

4)   North Wales Procurement Partnership (All Six Counties)

7. Christmas

Would you believe that in selecting a corporate Christmas card to send out from the Leader’s office, I had to wade through umpteen pages of samples before I found one that actually did read “Merry Christmas!”  What the heck is the matter with us?
Are we that lacking in cultural pride, belief and backbone?  We are now a multi-faith nation.  That much is fact. A little understanding, tolerance and acceptance of that fact will see us all enjoying the variety, with respect for each in turn. Political correctness be damned! I’ll go on telling it as it is. 


Merry Christmas to you all!


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