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Scrutiny of budget proposals hampered by ‘3 month old information’ & lack of grasp of figures

NOTE: This content is old - Published: Wednesday, Dec 20th, 2017.

Councillors attempting to look at budget cut proposals have been hampered by a lack of detailed information, with some of the aged information itself not being fully understood by some until the meeting itself  – despite being public three months ago.

Last night’s Employment, Business and Investment meeting was the first of four this week (two later today), with committees each looking to scrutinise relevant elements of the Difficult Decisions budget cuts and revenue generation proposals. One previous such meeting earlier this month also had problems.

15 budget proposals fell under the remit of the committee, as outlined in this document before the councillors. These documents were given as the requested detail to committee members, however appears to be selected pages from a document first circulated in late October when the savings plans were first unveiled ahead of the public consultation and thus not fresh information.

Cllr Dana Davies raised this as possibly problematic in a discussion over the three colour coded columns which illustrate how likely stated savings can be made, stating: “I was expecting that in this report these figures would be updated. Rather than colour coding I was expecting one column.

“We are getting the same document that went to Executive Board, in when, September or October? I thought we would be working up to a budget with new information, as time is moving forward.”

The finance officer replied to say the council did not wish to make changes to create a live document as they were worried they would be ‘accused of changing it’.

Council Leader Mark Pritchard backed that view, saying: “I would be very concerned, like you are, if that was the case. I would be concerned as I am sure we would be criticised that we would be seen as making decisions before scrutiny had met, and before consultation responses had been collected and looked at.”

Cllr Davies was unimpressed, noting: “The information needs to be up to date, we have information from September and further work has taken place.”

“We are two months away from putting the budget before full council. I am asking how realistic these numbers are. I do expect information up to date now not three months old.”

The presentation of the savings prompted questions over what the colour coding meant in practice, with the “Achievable / Possible / Further Work to see if possible” being seen as fuzzy. Some savings proposals listed, including the Library service review, were not actually new suggestions, with the saving proposal figures stated based off previously started work dating back to the last administration.

The meeting was also told the three column colours were an aid to creating the consultation, and would disappear next month when the figures are firmed up into a single firm set of numbers.

Other questions revolved around confusion on the year one and year two figures, with the meeting told that if there was a figure for 2018/19 and another figure for 2019/20 the first figure was assumed to be carried forward and not restated – and any second year figure would be an additional saving on top of the initial figure. Several councillors in this and last meeting appeared to be under the impression the figures were for two separate one off savings rather than cumulative ongoing savings.

A council officer did confirm some wording was ‘incorrect’ on the document that has been public for three months, following on from a typo that changed £4 a week parking to £4 a month in a previous meeting, and the confusion over the stated community centre in Penycae.

Councillors again were asked to put forward replacement cuts or revenue generation ideas if they wished to remove any items – with some not seeing that as the role of Scrutiny. None were suggested for removal, and no alternative ideas were put forward.

The meeting reflected the one earlier this month, with extra depth being given to some elements of the proposed savings with some probing. With no limited extra / new information available the additional detail was provided from a wide range of officers and lead members present.

Prior to yesterday’s meeting the full public information on Crown Buildings was to “Demolish/sell Crown Buildings Cash Limited Budget is £229k”.

Cllr Marc Jones enquired if the impact on Wrexham town centre trade had been considered formally, with office workers making up footfall in town.

Cllr Davies asked for specific staffing numbers compared to office capacities so all Council offices could be assessed.

Cllr Andrew Atkinson said he could see ‘both sides’ of the argument of commercial receipts and Council cost savings, but was aware of the impact on the town, he also said he wanted to ensure if any demolition took place: “Can we have something lined up ready, so it is not an empty wasteland for years until a developer gets themselves sorted out.”

The meeting was told by the council officer that no immediate decision is likely as ‘we need more thinking time’, adding that a new piece of work has been commissioned that will help Wrexham Council understand the surplus space in town. The principle from Wrexham Council is ‘we should not occupy what we do not own’, which creates a possible problem in the future on Lord Street where the office there has a lease until 2022.

The officer was asked ‘if it is your intention to move staff into the town centre’, which was diplomatically batted back, pointing out that the councillors give the political guidance and set the direction, “It is not my intention, it might be your intention if you want it”.

IT services are housed in Crown Buildings, a building described by one who has suffered the draughty windows and dodgy heating as ‘needing a heating system upgrade’.

Cllr Hugh Jones pointed out that some options in the Town Centre Masterplan for that site and others ‘could create greater income and footfall than just council officers working there’.

With the debate being outside the budget discussions specifically and with the considerable interest in the topic it was proposed that the subject be added to the committee’s future work programme specifically over the coming months.

Proposals to set a charge for Trevor, Chirk & Froncysyllte toilets was discussed, with Cllr Jones splitting out the Froncysyllte for specific feedback noting they were in the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal World Heritage Site area that “Is important as one of the jewels in Wrexham’s crown”.

Cllr Sonia Benbow-Jones agreed, saying: “It is so important we present a good face to visitors. This should not be a volunteer responsibility. It is about enhancing the visitor experience.”

Later in the meeting the item listed as “World Heritage Site – Reduce expenditure” was discussed, with £40k savings listed with a funding withdrawal. Cllr Marc Jones was happy to remind Cllr Hugh Jones of his earlier glowing words, asking: “This is a worrying cut to funding. Are we clear we have replacement funding from the Canal and River Trust, are there any long term guarantees? Is this a risk to the heritage site?”

He added: “We have more detail on the toilets there, than the cuts to the actual heritage site.”

Cllr Hugh Jones said: “I have to say I have some concerns in the reduction of the budget”, explaining that he was ‘reassured’ as there was an agreement in principle with other stakeholders in terms of the ongoing management.

Cllr Alun Jenkins made it clear, stating: “We can’t put its status in jeopardy, really we have to enhance what we have there. Calling it the jewel in the crown understates it. ”

Cllr Benbow-Jones enquired why more was not being done to grow the asset from the Chirk Bank side, “We are reacting rather than being proactive. I admit I am new, but I do not feel I am getting reassurance.”

Cllr Hugh Jones spoke some more on the ‘huge amount of effort to bring the partners together’, and when pushed on the agreement in principle told the meeting that there was no Plan B required as it would be done and dusted by April.

Remaining Community Centres are also listed on the document, bluntly as “Demolish remaining community centres, thereby saving on NNDR”.

Chair of the meeting Cllr Rodney Skelland appeared surprised at the three hands that were raised to ask questions, “I thought this would be more controversial” raising eyebrows as he gushed on how communities in and around his ward in Overton ‘took more interest’ in running their own.

Cllr Hugh Jones pointed out that policy of ‘divesting’ the centres from Wrexham Council was nothing new, and community groups and community councils had known since 2014 that they need to take them over otherwise they would be closed, demolished or sold off.

Cllr Mark Pritchard said: “Hugh is quite right. As Lead Member for Assets we have given a clear steer, and this is the journey we are on. If community councils do not take them on they will close.

“In Rhostyllen we have a parish hall paid for by the community. If communities think the assets are worth saving they can set the precepts to fund.”

Cllr Davies requested clarity over the three listed in the documents, asking if there was any transfers in place. The meeting was told Penycae ‘was in the process of being transferred’ with recent meetings speeding the process up. The other two, Abenbury and Kingsley Circle also have apparent interest, without it being specifically mentioned in the meeting from whom.

Cllr Atkinson defended the policy giving his first hand account of his attempts to help save the Kingsley Circle centre, saying Wrexham Council ‘bent over backwards to help’ however the community at the last moment did not proceed.

Cllr Jenkins pointed out that 29 centres had been run by Wrexham Council several years ago, a number down to just 2 or 3. Cllr Jenkins appeared to take exception to some comments by Cllr Skelland over the lack of enthusiasm of community councils and communities to take them over.

He said: ” I don’t want people to think from comments that community councils are not doing their bit. Trusts are hard, they take time and energy often from elderly populations.

“Forming a Trust is hard, and I have seen it, we had a small but dedicated band but it was not something they could consider taking on. In Offa both are fully supported by the community council, and over the last year we have taken on more responsibility.”

Another item examined was “Free Breakfasts – Implement a charge for the wraparound childcare element”, which could see Wrexham Council charge £1 for previously free services in some area that covers breakfasts and child care.

Cllr Adrienne Jeorrett asked for clarity on the timings of the proposal, with Cllr Davies asking if there had been joined up discussions with the Education Department.

The meeting was told by the council officer that with the 58 schools covered, 48 have free breakfasts and 10 ‘do their own thing’ with timings ‘all over the place’ without standardisation.

The officer gave more practical detail than the technical nuts and bolts paragraph in the public document, noting that schools charge anything from 80 pence to £4 for similar services, posing the question “Why would schools stay with us and charge just £1 when they could do it themselves and charge more?”, adding that in Wats Dyke a family with four children could pay £7.30 a day for an existing service.

The officer pointed out that the told area of service costs £630k a year, and therefore the exercise was to recover some of the cost, adding the move would never come close to pay for the service.

Although the consultation responses are believed to have been fed back in earlier workshops the distillation of comments is not yet public, but reading between the lines it appears public feedback has been quite positive for this proposal. If it is brought in the meeting was told further work would take place before the end of the school year, with a likely launch for the start of the new school year.

Possible role out issues were noted, including with possible difficulties to staff very short periods in mornings to cover the service.

Cllr Benbow-Jones welcomed the proposal saying she thought it could improve attendance, improve learning and would allow an opportunity to discreetly help children if required.

The council officer agreed, stating that research shows if children have a decent breakfast they stay more engaged through the day, adding that is why the school meals service exists as it provides the educational outcomes.

Concerns were raised by Cllr Paul Jones that a charge could prove expensive to ‘the just about managing’, prohibitively so, and encouraged provision in any changes to address that. The council officer agreed there is a ‘risk group’, and said existing charged services had systems in place to help mitigate such problems.

We are told the meeting wound up later with recommendations formed to note the report / comments of the Lead Member and Officers. Councillors also requested further information on Crown Buildings and the office building review, impacts on IT services as well as the Museum and Library service reviews – with the aim for those to come back in the future to the committee to look at.


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