Carmarthenshire Council chief’s fears over jobs and services

Carmarthenshire Council has to find at least £16m in savings over the next three years – and depending on what Chancellor George Osbourne says in his Autumn Statement next week – it could well be more.

In an exclusive interview with Journal news editor Nick Parry, council chief executive Mark James says services and jobs will be lost. But his real fear is what lies ahead if the cutbacks continue beyond 2015…

“WE have already taken £25m out of the budget over the last three years, which has been quite challenging.

“The next three years aren’t going to get any easier – we’ve got £16m we are estimating at the moment and with the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement coming up shortly it could get worse.

“With things like adult social care – demand is rising year on year. This year, the year we are in now, we had to put £5m extra in just to keep things ticking over.

“The government in Wales has also protected education.

“When we say next year we have got to save £5m, we can’t take it from schools. Not only can we not take it from social care, we have to give social care more money, so that leaves everything else.

“Leisure services, street scene services, highways, planning, environmental health, trading standards – dozens and dozens of different services – I think over 200 in total.

“All of those services have to take a hit and education and social service make up about 60% of our budget so the savings have to come from the other 40%.

“Suddenly those services find they have got to find 5 or 6%, which then means we run into severe difficulty.

“What we have done so far is what I suppose some people might call salami slicing – now it’s got beyond that because you can only salami slice so much before you say ‘ok we can’t run this service any more’.

“A lot of these things are things people would like to see us continue running but we just don’t have the money to do it.

“If you take the library service – we run the main libraries in Carmarthen, Ammanford and Llanelli and some of the other bigger ones such as Burry Port.

“But some of the small ones where we only give out two or three books an hour – we’ve had to say we just cannot do it.

“In some cases the communities have stepped in and said we will put volunteers in to do it, which is great.

“Luncheon clubs for the elderly are the same.

“We use to run them and it cost £400,000. Now we don’t run any of them but communities have stepped in, church groups have stepped in, community councils have stepped in.

“More people are now using them than ever before. The community is really getting involved and we are saving £400,000. That is getting on towards one per cent of council tax.

“My fear is that whilst we are planning for the next three years and that’s going to be difficult and painful in some areas, if it goes on beyond that and it continues at this level of attrition, or even gets worse, we could be in a lot of difficulty. We had all expected it to last the period of this government, that is until 2015. We had prepared for that although it does not make pretty reading.

“We thought once that finishes maybe the economy will have grown and we’ll stop having cuts – even if it’s a freeze it would be great – as long as it’s not going down.

“I don’t think that is going to happen. I think it will continue for quite some time and it’s going to get even more difficult. We will have to stop wholesale services and the two that will get protected will be education and adult social care.

“Even there we are going to have to look at doing things in an entirely different way. Services that people have expected us to do – we will only be doing critical things, really critical things, and asking the community to step in.

“I’m not saying this would happen, although councils are having to look at it – we may have to close all the leisure centres because if education and social care are still protected, one of our big services will have to go.

“We will come to the point where we don’t have enough money to pay staff to run them. I desperately don’t want to do that.

“We have put in a lot of money, we have rebuilt Carmarthen Leisure Centre, we are looking at a new leisure centre for Llanelli. But there’s a great fear we won’t be able to pay the staff to run these things in five years’ time if these cuts continue.

“We are not allowed by law to set an unbalanced budget. In February next year we must set a budget that says we can pay for everything we do and if we can’t we’ve broken the law.

“Whenever we say we can’t do this any more there’s usually an outcry and you’ve usually got it spread over page one. That is going to continue but I think we need to get the message out that we just have not got an alternative. There’s no magic money tree somewhere – this is going to continue and we’ve got to manage our way through it.”