Community spirit will help residents cope with council’s financial challenges according to council leader
Anthony Lewis Local Democracy Reporter
The leader of one of Wales’ largest councils has spoken of his pride in representing its people and the community spirit that will get them through the challenges it faces as he approaches 10 years in the job.
Councillor Andrew Morgan became leader of Rhondda Cynon Taf Council back in 2014 so next year will be his tenth year in the position.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) sat down with him to find out how he has found the role, what keeps him going and the challenges and hopes for the years to come.
Speaking about his time as leader, Cllr Morgan highlighted the variety of things he does as leader.
He said: “On the one hand I’m doing a media interview like this, I’m in the middle of doing some budget spreadsheets I’m looking at some information with finance and then this evening I plan to meet with some residents about a parking issue.”
Cllr Morgan added: “I suppose the variety of the job to a certain extent I have to say keeps me sane.
“I would say I am really well supported by local residents and even when somebody maybe says they don’t like a decision I’ve had to make as council leader, they respect or at least they understand how difficult it is.”
He said: “Doing those little things sometimes probably keeps you sane so if I was just to focus on the role of council leader and nothing but I do wonder how long I’d be able to do it for.
He compared that to doing those small things like going out to speak to people about fly tipping and getting it collected.
Cllr Morgan said: “Sometimes you do get abuse unfortunately and in recent months and years I have had some stuff sent to me because of Covid and various other things, but what I would say is when you help somebody, and I’ve done it recently, you end up with a little hand written note off somebody who has put it through your door to say thank you and I think stuff like that really matters.
“Because to that person it was a huge issue, on the face of it it was a relatively small thing, but for that person it was really important and the fact they took the time to say thank you it’s those sorts of things that keep you wanting to do the job you do.”
Speaking about the people of RCT, Cllr Morgan mentioned the amount of times the community has come together especially since austerity including community groups helping to run paddling pools, as well as during the floods, a time when the community really rallied together.
He said they could see the council was working flat out and staff were working extended hours and the community stepped up and supported people.
During Covid, he said they were overwhelmed with the number of volunteers to support people who were shielding and he said that if anything the third sector was frustrated that the council couldn’t use them more because everybody wanted to help.
He also mentioned the £4m support package the council is providing to tens of thousands of households adding “I wish we could go much further and help more but it is a start, it is something we are doing” and he thinks people can see that the council is trying to do something.
He said: “People knock the Valleys from time to time. I was born and bred in the Valleys. I’m proud to live here. I’m extremely proud to represent the Valleys and I think the community spirit is as strong today in the Valleys as it has ever been and that’s what will get us through these tough times.”
Describing the current financial situation, Cllr Morgan said: “It’s looking really difficult for local government generally across the UK, across Wales and in RCT for the next budget round.
“We’re obviously lobbying around the UK Government budget and in consultation and talks with Welsh Government but it is going to look really challenging.”
Cllr Morgan said that although inflation is coming down, it has been high over the last year which has had an impact and they’re still seeing pay pressures, huge demands on services such as social care and in particular children’s social care.
“So that does put a real strain on the council at a time when potentially next year we’re looking at a 3.1% increase in RSG (Revenue Support Grant) where pay is forecast to be anything up to 5% so clearly 3.1 doesn’t fund 5%.
“It is going to be difficult but I think we are committed to protecting as many services as possible and I think engaging with the public now over the next few months is going to be key.”
In terms of service changes, Cllr Morgan said they’re looking at areas where they can “turn the tap down” so rather than absolutely stopping services in some areas, they’re looking to see if they could reduce them slightly, meaning that if there are better budget settlements in future years then they can turn the tap back on.
He said they’re not looking to close venues down but maybe reducing hours which will have some marginal impact on residents but will allow the council to put those hours back in the future.
Doing things differently
Cllr Morgan said they’ve been able to do that in some service areas where they had to make cuts maybe five or six years ago and where budgets have been a little better over the last few years they’ve been able to put money back in for areas like the youth service with vehicles that go out to young people.
“We are looking at how we do things differently but undoubtedly if we are to have a balanced budget, which we are obliged to do by law, then that does mean that unfortunately the cabinet and the council will have to consider some really tough things.”
“The message I keep getting off councillors and I keep giving to councillors is that none of us went into politics to cut services” but he said they have to try and do it as best as possible and try to explain to the community why it is that they pay more in council tax but get less.
He said it’s because 80% of the funding comes from UK Government to Welsh Government and from Welsh Government to councils and added “unfortunately without more money we’re on a slippery slope.”
Cllr Morgan said if you compare what the council is obliged to do by law compared to other councils in Wales and England, they’re almost down to the bare bones while RCT provides over 650 services of which two thirds are statutory and even there some of the stuff they do in RCT is well above the statutory level.
On council tax reform, he said: “First of all I think everybody would broadly welcome a conversation on it.”
He said it was brought in by Margaret Thatcher over 20 years ago on the back of the poll tax riots and he thinks that everybody accepts that the current system doesn’t feel very fair.
But he said that it’s really important that any changes have to be proportionate.
Cllr Morgan said 90% of properties in RCT are between band A and band D and could see a bit of a reduction in their council tax but bands like E, F, G, H could go up which would have a detrimental effect on around 10% of households.
He said: “So it’s getting the balance right because just because somebody lives in a property that might be worth more in an area, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve got more money to spend on bills and utilities.”
He added: “Opening the conversation up is the right thing to do but I think it’s really important now that the public have a say and then everybody takes on board those comments.”
Impact on residents
Cllr Morgan said that in his nine years as leader, RCT’s average council tax rise has been around 3%, with this year being on the high end at 3.9% but other years they’ve been able to keep it as low as 1%.
He said: “I’ve been clear that I don’t want to see really big council tax rises but in the current year some councils had to go as high as almost 10%.
“Now I’m adamant we can’t go anywhere near that because of the impact on residents but council tax is going to become more challenging. So again, whatever the Welsh Government decides to do on this it has to be proportionate. And if people are impacted, my clear line has been that if some end up going up and others go down those who go up need to have some sort of cushion, they need to be protected in some way.”
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