Council preparing for the worst as it faces perilous budget situation
Richard Evans, local democracy reporter
Conwy’s leader will call a meeting to discuss the council’s ‘perilous’ budget situation, telling councillors they should ‘prepare for the worst’ and start making cuts now.
Speaking at yesterday’s council meeting, leader Cllr Charlie McCoubrey said he was going to get the committee chairs and vice chairs together to see where savings could be made.
The savings, he said, could include pausing and dropping current projects the council has already committed to.
Last month cabinet member for finance Cllr Mike Priestley warned the council is facing a shortfall of around £18.5m – a figure that could rise.
But Cllr McCoubrey told councillors they must look at making savings in the current financial year because costs, such as heating, fuel, and construction, were increasing across the board.
This means the council is facing a shortfall of £9.5m, in the current financial year.
The leader said he had already met with the council’s senior leadership team and cabinet to discuss the urgent situation.
“We have discussed at length the perilous budget situation we are facing in the next financial year,” said Cllr McCoubrey.
“I think we need to turn our attention to the pressures we face in this current financial year.
“Now this year, since March, it has clearly been an extraordinary situation. We know from our own personal situation that inflation rates have exploded up to 10%.
“Interest rates are up, the price of fuel, heating. We are not immune to any of that. In many respects, we are more exposed.
“But the reality is we can’t do less bin collections. We can’t do less service delivery in lots of areas. And whilst inflation is running at over 10% in some areas, in some areas like construction, it is more like 25 or 27%; civil engineering is 30%.
“And again lots of things we have to do like our flood protection become incredibly more expensive.”
Prepare for the worst
Cllr McCoubrey indicated that its homeless crisis was putting additional pressure on the council.
This follows figures revealing Conwy has the fourth highest number of people living in temporary accommodation in Wales.
Conwy also has one of the most elderly populations in the UK, adding extra pressure to its social care bill.
“But the real element I’d like to focus on is- when you talk about need – we have statutory duties, in social care and in housing,” said Cllr McCoubrey.
“So like the NHS, we can’t turn people away. We have to estimate how many people will come in and put that money aside.
“In the extraordinary times we are in, that need has exploded. Previously, in the past, we could look for support from Welsh Government and various grant schemes that would come in. Some years that was as much as £60m. A very good example was during COVID we had the hardship fund.
“If we were able to demonstrate extra costs to this council that were outside our control, we got that money back.
“That source has dried up. It’s not looking like it is going to be replaced, so that is really, really serious for us as a body.”
He continued: “We are projected to have an overspend of £9.5m. To put that in context, if we use our reserves, that would leave us with around £15m in reserve when we know next year is likely to be worse.
“So we talk about tough choices, tough decisions being made, but I think in our heads we’ve always had this hope and desire that the cavalry will come over the hill; there will be extra funding to take some of this pressure away. But we’ve seen the situation on a national level. I think we have to prepare for the worst.
“So the actions we need to take have to happen now. For me, we have to have an urgent review of what we do. We have to have a look at projects we have approved in the past, capital projects that we wanted to deliver.
We have to look at things we can pause. We have to look at things we have to drop.
“And these tough decisions will have to be made by us all. Our staff are under severe pressure. Recruitment is a huge issue. We can’t recruit staff.
“But the reality is now, even if we could recruit the staff, could we afford to pay them? So we need, as members, to look at ways we can lighten the load on our staff.
“I want our officers working laser-focused on the problems and not necessarily spending more time than they need to on reports, attending meetings where we can do it differently as members.
“So I would like to organise a meeting with all the chairs and vice chairs. We see our forward working plan getting longer and longer and longer. We need to look at that and ask what’s going to make a real difference here.
“What do we need to focus on? Where do we need to save money? How can we spend money to save money? All those things have to be our focus, and we have to look at how we deploy our officers so their talents are being used.”
He added: I just want to impress upon you the seriousness of the situation we are in. We are in a hole. That hole is getting deeper and deeper every day.”
“But I’m as leader not prepared to stand by and let that happen. We need to start trying to climb out of that hole, and that requires action now, not next March.”
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