Posted: Tue 5th Dec 2017

Scrutiny of budget cuts hampered as meeting told it is ‘art not science’ with no voluminous books of detail for people living in or visiting the wrexham area
This article is old - Published: Tuesday, Dec 5th, 2017

An attempt to scrutinise proposed council budget cuts hit a hurdle yesterday when councillors were told there wasn’t much more detail to provide for many parts of the proposals – at least not in public.

The Homes and Environment Scrutiny Committee had previously requested detail on 24 items listed in this information document on the cuts before Councillors, a request itself that had caused confusion when made as it was clarified extra information was the request rather than 24 reports.

Wrexham Council Leader Mark Pritchard attended the meeting and opened with a now usual presentation stating ‘we did not come into local politics to cut services but this is the arena we are in because of austerity’.

The meeting was unusual, it was listed online as being a “special” and possibly first meeting ever with councillors looking to scrutinise specific budget cut proposals publicly in this manner.

The council leader offered thanks to lead members and officers who had changed their diaries to make the meeting happen, but asked if more planning could be made in future noting they are usually booked up three months in advance.

Again repeating a previous invite, Cllr Pritchard said: “All lead members are open to ideas, so put your ideas on the table and we are willing to listen.”

The council’s finance officer effectively backed that invite after detailing the budget process with much detail and clarity, noting that due to legalities of producing a balanced budget any suggestions to remove items by scrutiny committees it would be preferred that a replacement cut (or revenue generator) should be suggested.

The finance officer also spent time clearing up a £2m ‘gap’ between the proposed cuts in the budget consultation and figures made public, with some speculating there could be a further £2m of cuts yet to be announced. It was also pointed out there were many known unknowns lurking, including changes to the Welsh Government Budget, the final settlement figures, and even the shake out of the UK Government budget itself yet to get full and final figures attributed.

Sat alone in the public gallery we were the only outside observers when Cllr Alun Edwards looked forward to a prompt meeting, little did we know it would be three and a half hours before we saw daylight, with the meeting itself carrying on for hours more.

Cllr Edwards said: “I do not want this to be like other meetings, there is no point going around in circles. Lets not fart about, if we say we can’t cut this lets put forward an alternative. Lets not go back and too for an hour and a half.”

That idea was swiftly derailed with two issues coming to a head early on.

Firstly the information asked for did not seem to be available, with equality impact assessments not accessible by some councillors.

Cllr Carrie Harper voiced her disappointment that ‘despite the clear recommendations from the last committee there is no extra information provided’. The request was for further detail on each of the items on this PDF table, a document that has been in the public domain for several weeks.

No further per-item information was given out, however there were more lead members and officers at the meeting ready to answer questions than we have seen at any recent meeting.

Cllr Harper enquired why no further detail was given in the report before them, or even as a ‘Part 2’ element to the meeting.

Meetings are taken into ‘Part 2’ where the public gallery is cleared and a secret debate can take place, with freedom to discuss sensitive material – for example, jobs or commercial matters that should not be public.

It was revealed the usual secret pre-meeting meeting had taken place with the committee who had decided to change from the advertised agenda to look to split the debate into a Part 1 public meeting then save commercially or personally sensitive questions to a Part 2 secret session.

As a result the councillors went through the list in the PDF document asking questions on each, usually in order, with a second set of questions prepared for the Part 2 session.

Cllr Jenkins was not in attendance, but almost managed to scupper those plans unknowingly, by sending his apologies alongside some emailed questions. One of which was read out and referred to possible job cuts with a precise figure, with Cllr Pritchard quickly jumping in to ensure no more Part 2 content was made public.

Cllr Barrie Warburton was unimpressed with the tabling of questions via email and non-attendance, enquiring what was the point of attending if that was possible – with the council leader helpfully pointing out those who attend get to vote as well as taking part in the wider debate.

With the process nailed down the questions started to flow, with Cllr Harper kicking off asking for clarity on
which parks were due to be affected by proposed cuts, and requesting for a per-park break down of the impacts.

Cllr Bithell answered that he had seen various ‘Friends of…’ groups being concerned at the impacts, but offered to ‘put peoples mind at rest’ stating a the proposals were ‘introduction of a new service model’. He acknowledged it ‘may involve reduction in staffing’, and opening hours could change. The plans were outlined as a ‘new delivery model that is more focused, more efficient and would deliver better value’.

In between various interjections Cllr Harper asked four times for a per-park break down of the impacts, with Cllr Bithell replying: “What more information do you want? No decisions have been made. If we proceed I will be happy to share the information”

Wrexham Council’s Head of Environment and Planning Lawrence Isted spoke to make a general point over the ‘principle of cuts than the specifics of cuts’, saying the cuts process started 3-4 years ago with the ‘writing of a long list’ that was colour coded green amber and red. Red was described as ‘positivity difficult’ where the options would have negative implications regardless, “Nothing on this list does not cause some harm as there is an impact. It is relative harm we are talking about.”

The battle went on with Cllr Harper again asking: “Are you happy to circulate the information per park? I am trying to scrutinise, to scrutinise we need the detail. It is a difficult position to scrutinise without the information.”

Mr Isted replied saying: “We do not have the full picture as we have not worked up the full plans and proposals. It would be abortive work if 3-4 options are deleted. I was trying to get across the general principle.”

At this point Cllr Pritchard took the lead, stating: “The difficulty we have, and it will be the ongoing theme this morning, we don’t have the information, as we have not made a political decision.

“You wanted as much information as we can give you, we can only give you what you have at this time.

“It is my opinion, but I think you have asked for these meetings a little early. You have them blocked through December and I will be at them and will be saying the same thing. I am happy to give you the information we have today. We are in a little bit of a, we can’t go forward until we decide what we are going to take forward.”

At that Cllr Pritchard held his hands up as if to indicate there was not much more he could do on that point.

Cllr Mike Morris agreed that the process of scrutiny needed looking at, but pointed out: “It is hard to understand and the public might think the same, some work must have been done to say put a value of it saving £100,000.

“Instead of fudging about, someone must have worked out how this could save £100k in some shape or form, perhaps value worked out in various scenarios. How has the £100k been worked up?”

Unfortunately can’t tell you, but councillors might know as both the council officer and council leader pointed out they would be happy to answer – but under Part 2 conditions – and therefore that question was left there.

Further questions followed that pattern, with Cllr Graham Rogers angrily asking if there had been discussions with unions and that he would be unhappy to have a serious debate unless that had happened. Again the answer was from Cllr Pritchard: “You are right. I did say this early on, this is the theme but if you want a frank and open discussion go into Part 2.”

Cllr Bithell did placate Cllr Rogers, noting that ‘unions have been consulted’ but again stressed no decisions had been made.

The next item discussed was bins, an exchange we have plucked out into its very own article that you can read here….

Questions on domestic waste were followed by questions on trade waste, with Cllr Dana Davies asking about optimum pricing to avoid schools going elsewhere after proposed Council price increases.

In answer she was told the 50% rise figure in the document was not precise and subject to change and was ‘a guide’. Cllr Bithell added: “We are going to maximise as much as we can, it is not about penalise people, if schools with to go external that is a matter for them but our prices will be competitive.

Mr Isted explained that the cuts were ‘a matter of art not science’ adding the figures quoted were felt to be ‘achievable with a fair wind’, and there was information around risk assessments in terms of how achievable a cut was but said he ‘did not want to give the impression there is voluminous books of information, it is judgement’.

It appeared some members of the committee were unimpressed, expecting to see the detail on how savings / cuts with attributed values had been calculated.

Cllr Davies enquired if consultation had taken place with those living by country parks, as charging for parking could mean people would park nearby on residential streets rather than pay. The reply was the recent county wide consultation counted towards that, but Cllr Bithell did add that ‘as with any parking changes there would be a statutory consultation process if that was introduced’.

Charging for second green bin collections are on the proposal document, triggering a round of questions. Cllr Davies pointed out that could push people to using black bins more, which could cost the Council more in various ways including raising cost via the PFI waste deal that is in place.

Cllr Bithell disagreed saying the PFI deal was in mind, and if people did not wish to pay for a second bin they could take their waste in person to the various skip sites run by the Council.

Mr Isted also offered that there could be a hidden benefit, as it ‘might encourage more people to compost’.

Some of the questions asked illustrated the lack of detail on offer, with a question on the cut of a full time employee and impact on the size on the department being answered with a maths problem of “Well, it would be about 250 people minus, er, one.”

Debate on revenue changes over leasing of vehicles, and other options presumably took place in Part 2, despite being raised and unanswered in public.

Those councillors and staff who get free parking perks could have to pay for parking under the budget proposals, with a typo spotted in the document before the meeting – £4 a week parking planned rather than £4 a month. Cllr Davies raised a question of equality, with councillors being asked to pay £1 for parking with disabled members of the public looking at a £1.50 charge.

The parking debate raised the question on how possible charges at country parks would be enforced, with the meeting told the normal council enforcement officers would be used. Cllr Morris appeared sceptical on this plan, pointing out that ‘in the sticks’ it was rare to see an enforcement officer, in his view the ‘easy pickings’ of town carparks being preferred.

Cllr Warburton offered a rare piece of positivity on the plans, with allotment users he speaks with apparently pleased with the proposals as they get support from the council as part of the service.

Cllr Warburton was less pleased with the plans to ‘transfer’ bowling greens, looking for reassurance that even if they were not taken up by community councils or clubs that they would not be closed. “If they are not taken over I would not want to see them go, no one would build them again.”

Lead Member for Environment and Transport, Cllr David A Bithell likened the situation to community centres, saying it was ‘the reality, take them over, use them or lose them’ but adding the ongoing mantra of ‘no decisions have been made at this stage’.

Overview questions were asked over the planned changes in shared public protection services, with it revealed that a ‘regional service’ was due to be explored that could include some or all north wales councils if they were open to the idea.

With the list nearly complete a comfort break was called around 1:15pm.

The lack of information, or the inability to hold direct conversations in public, appeared to be holding back the debate – so three and a half hours after the meeting began the meeting was restarted with the usual ‘Part 2’ notice read out, with reference to employment discussions being in private outweighing the public interest in it being public.

Therefore we can’t report on any more of the debate, if questions were answered satisfactory in the end, if required information was provided, or what recommendations were formed.

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