Over recent weeks I have been inundated with calls, emails and letters from concerned residents in Brecon and Radnorshire about the proposed 9.5% increase proposed by Powys County Council.
There is no simplistic answer to the dire financial situation Powys County Council find themselves in. There are various contributing factors which have led to the situation the council now find themselves in.
Prior to being a Member of Parliament, I was for three years the County Councillor for Glasbury Ward. This position gave me first-hand experience seeing how Powys County Council was run.
Firstly I will not overlook what happened in 2008. The Western world was engulfed by a huge economic recession and both Labour Governments under Gordon Brown and the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010-2015 had to make extremely tough decisions. All UK Governments were spending far more than it had coming in through taxes. It was an utterly unsustainable situation and decisions were made to cut funding in various departments. Councils also took a hit after years of constantly increased budgets.
Councils all over the country, including Powys needed to make sweeping top to bottom reforms in the way the council is run, changing the generous public sector contracts they give out and embracing modern technology to make huge backroom savings. The problem was that Councils such as Powys thought they could make minor changes and try and ride out the cuts to their budgets out. They were wrong and their lack of action has led to the mess Powys County Council find themselves in now.
These councillors delayed making the tough financial decisions they needed to face up to, instead they dipped into the councils financial reserves and refused to make the deep reforms needed.
Funnily enough, very few of these councillors ran for re-election in 2017 and left a new, relatively inexperienced group of councillors to deal with their failings.
Secondly there is the issue of who actually runs Powys County Council. A basic elected councillor is paid around £13,000 and even the elected leader of Powys County Council earns around £44,000.
At the same time, various officers and staff at Powys who have no accountability to the public are earning in some cases between two to three times more than the elected leader who is meant to be leading the council. These officers run the departments and make a significant number of decisions that affect the council.
There was rightly a big public outcry last month when it was revealed that the new Chief Executive of Powys County Council is earning £138,000 with a cash boost of over £25,000.
Many will be thinking it is crazy that this Chief Exec of Powys earns more than the Prime Minister, and I agree. How is it right that the elected ‘leader’ of the council who takes all the flack earns around £44,000 and the unelected Chief Executive earns almost four times that amount? This needs to change.
I believe the council is officer led and that the cabinet need to stand up and take powers back and give it to those who were elected by the people of Powys, not let council employees run the council from behind the scenes whilst leaving councillors to deal with the public.
Thirdly I believe we must hold those to account who control Powys annual budget to account.
The Welsh Government allocate a budget to Powys every year and it has been cut for almost ten years straight. I totally understand the budget being squeezed between 2008-2014 due to the tough economic situation the country found itself in, struggling to pull through a recession.
However, in the last few years the Welsh Government of which our Assembly Member for Brecon and Radnorshire is a cabinet member has continued to cut local authority funding for Powys.
Wales receives last year the UK Government increased funding to the Welsh Government by over 5%. I called for this to be spent on frontline services and the NHS, in the hope the Welsh Government would start funding our services more.
The opposite was true. Instead of increasing budgets for rural Wales, they were cut again. Whilst Labour’s stronghold in Cardiff received an increase in funding.
Our Council in Powys must be firm with the Welsh Labour/Liberal Government and call out their bias against rural Wales. We need a formula fit to run local services and now that the UK Government is increasing Welsh funding there is no excuse to not pass this money to local authorities.
In conclusion, I do not believe the 9.5% rise is appropriate. I am saddened that local newspapers and politicians have insinuated these are cuts being driven by Conservative Councillors, when in reality the Conservatives only have 19 out of 73 councillors in Powys County Council, so it would be pretty unlikely for such a minority have such control of the majority of the council.
I have discussed the proposed 9.5% rise with various County Councillors who are in favour and opposed to such a rise. Conservative minded people don't believe in taxing the people of their area an extra 9.5% more for less services. But this is not an easy situation for any councillor and they must vote with their conscience.