Trevor Coxon, the Council’s Head of Corporate & Customer Services, gave a stark account on how cuts and planned cuts are leaving the authority ‘snookered’ in some circumstances.
Mr Coxon was addressing questions from the Customers, Performance, Resources and Governance Scrutiny Committee who were looking at 11 saving proposals as part of scrutiny of the ‘Difficult Decisions’ process – the first of two such meetings earlier today.
Prefacing his comments by noting he was due to leave the Council shortly, he was keen to point out that his colleagues in the Corporate Services Department were ‘doing their level best’ despite the amount of cuts being made.
“We have not started with much to begin with, so the amount we contribute to savings may not look like much. We are a little like the oil in a performance engine, operational services and frontline services all need to operate and the machinery to operate. We are the lubricant that keeps it running, if you put in cheaper oil the engine can start to fail.”
“I am not going to be here for much longer, but I do think we need to think very carefully. We have made a lot of cuts in Legal, and if something else happens such as the two maternity leaves this year, it snookers us. If someone leaves in a key area we can struggle to make replacements. There is little in the way of extra capacity to meet the demands.”
Mr Coxon was answering a point about collaborative working across North Wales, with his answer matching responses last week over the HMO licencing where Councillors said ‘alarm bells’ had rung.
Cllr Nigel Williams enquired what impact staff cuts would have on various monitoring work taking place inside Wrexham Council.
The Council’s Finance Officer was also responding, noting various staff that had left during the year and various ‘like teams’ being brought together to do similar work more efficiently, the meeting was told Corporate Services “… are a lean department when benchmarked against other authorities, but we recognise there is pressure there from austerity.”
Officers recounted how budget monitoring used to take place every month, but has now moved bi-monthly and could even go quarterly at some point in the future, “We have found bi monthly is ok, but we would not want to go to any less frequency especially when managing the amount of savings we are.”
One Officer said: “We can’t look at budget monitoring in the same level of detail as we did a few years ago, and now
take more of a risk based approach. That is where we believe there is a risk, we put more resources into that area.”
Cllr Davies enquired if the recent £900k overspend in Childcare was not spotted in monitoring due to the cutbacks, however was reassured by being told it was ‘picked up straight away’ and regardless of monitoring there was little to mitigate against it.
The savings proposals noted: “Collaboration with neighbouring authorities in respect of legal posts Recognise that this is dependent on other authorities agreeing which so far has been difficult. No cashable savings identified and if there are any they will be in 2019/20″
Questions were asked on progress made on that process, with some surprise at the reported reluctance from some authorities to take part in such a process.
The Council Officer gave a narrative answer based on ‘bearing the scars of 4-5 years of trying to encourage six north Wales authorities to do this’.
The process was described as painfully slow, ” You move at the pace at the most reluctant partner in that group. It can be that those authorities are not experiencing the difficulties we are suffering here in Wrexham.
“I will be honest it was not helped by the political environment where there was proposed mergers of local authorities. Work being done was being hindered by the politics in that scenario.”
“Thankfully it has been freed up now. We are all struggling to find resources to meet the necessary demand.”
Collaboration across North Wales on legal services appears something that is possible, with vast elements of duplicate and similar work taking place, however a frustrating answer appeared to indicate the boat has been missed to leverage the most savings from joint working.
“The problem is to find willing partners, most authorities have enough resources to meet their remand, so the potential to make significant savings, well, that ship has sailed. Joint working would give better resilience and better cover, and therefore amore consistent service.”
There was opportunities to make savings in such shared working with a suggestion by the Officer to co-fund hiring specialists that are then shared across authorities, however “the opportunity to make vast savings by sharing positions has gone.”
Another Officer explained that ‘teams are just about enough’, but reiterated that it can be ‘difficult to maintain levels of service’ in the case of maternity leave or similar, “We are all experiencing same problem with cover. One of our particular issues is recruitment in Children’s Services, it is extremely difficult as there is not a huge a pool of people we can recruit from with one vacant post carried for well over twelve months.
“Even if the will is there, all teams are working flat out with the existing resources they have got. We are trying!”
Other questions on proposals revealed some more detail, previously not made public, on the efficiencies being made – including that there are 144 separate software applications in use at the Council – with it pointed out that each require software licences and support. It was reported that efficiencies were ‘moving forward quite successfully’ to get the numbers down, with some examples such as 30 databases being reconciled to 2.
Councillors thanked the Officers for their ‘diplomatic’ and ‘honest’ answers, with a recommendation from Councillors to Executive Board to make savings in this area “in way that doesn’t result in reduction of staff in the technical audit team”.