As the Chancellor gets to his feet today to announce the Budget, I have joined with Cllr Carol Clement-Williams, Cabinet Member for Finance at Neath Port Talbot Council, and Mark Fisher, Chair NPT Unison, to call on Philip Hammond to drop the Government's austerity policies, ensure local government is funded properly and that public sector workers get the pay they deserve.
You can read our article, published in the South Wales Evening Post, below.
Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, today gets to his feet at that familiar Despatch box in order to present his 2018 - 19 budget to MPs, and to the British people. And when he does so, he will have a choice, because politics is always about choices. Mr Hammond can either continue on the path of self-defeating austerity, or he can face up to the fact that his economic policies are just not working, that investment in our public services is desperately required, and that the public sector pay cap must be lifted.
For seven years Neath Port Talbot Council has been expected to find growing amounts of savings as their budget has been slashed by the Westminster Government. Since 2008 some £78million has been cut from Neath Port Talbot’s budget and they are expected to find an additional £60million over the next five years. If they manage to achieve this it will be the equivalent of them scrapping the entire Social Services budget.
Public sector workers carry out vital work delivering the services we all rely on but have been subjected to pay freeze and now a pay cap. These are dedicated people providing us with the services we all depend on, from emergency services to social services and refuse collections, public sector workers keep us safe, healthy educated and cared for. The Government have made a woeful attempt to balance the books off their backs, all in the name of austerity.
As budget cuts have gone deeper and deeper it has become impossible to sustain local services. Residents, service users and the council workforce have all played their part in meeting these savings. Dedicated residents have banded together to take on the responsibilities, volunteering their time and experience to keeping facilities like libraries in Taibach, Briton Ferry and Cymmer open. Volunteers have worked hard to keep the Noddfa Community centre in Glyncorrwg, Gwynfi Miners Hall, and the Afan Valley Swimming Pool open and to take control of bowling greens and sports pitches.
Service users have seen fees introduced on services such as pest control, in other areas fees have been increased, while refuse collections have moved to fortnightly, grass verges have been cut less frequently and roads have been ‘patched’ rather than repaired by more appropriate highways maintenance programmes.
Unprecedented budget cuts have been coupled with unprecedented pressures on services as the demands of an ageing population bite. Services have been moved out of communities and focused on urban populations but this has left those who are in most need of help cut off from the services they need.
The Tory approach to local government budgeting has been the 'devolution of blame'. They cut budgets for local government across the country, but this tends to impact more negatively on local authorities that struggle to raise revenue through council tax, and of course those authorities tend to be Labour controlled. So, Labour councils end up getting harshly criticised by local residents on the basis of decisions made entirely in Westminster.
Those that deliver our services have also played their part too, doing more and more for less and less. Around 2,000 permanent, quality jobs, have been lost as a result of the downsizing of the Council workforce, 1,500 of those have been over the last 3 years, they are jobs we cannot afford to lose. Those that have remained have also made their contribution too. On top of the pay restraint imposed from Westminster, the workforce and Councillors took a voluntary pay cut, contributing £8million to the savings to keep local services operating. At the same time they have faced an escalating workload and increased pressures. This cannot and should not continue.
Together with the unions, Neath Port Talbot has worked hard to avoid compulsory redundancies and the slashing of pay, terms and conditions, which we have seen in other parts of the UK. But if austerity continues and Council budgets continue to be eroded then it will become an impossible task to avoid outsourcing services and compulsory redundancies.
Only with adequate funding from the Westminster government can the Council afford a 1% increase in staff pay, which would cost them £1.1million and an additional £700,000 for teachers.
But the strain is showing, not only in Neath Port Talbot but across the country, with three-quarters of councils in England and Wales expressing little to no confidence in the sustainability of local government finances and one in ten believing they are in danger of failing to meet legal requirements to deliver core services.
Worryingly three quarters of local government workers have said that their workload has increased in the last year, sixty percent are working extra hours beyond their contracted hours, and nearly a quarter are working extra hours that are unrewarded and uncompensated. This has led to significant problems recruiting and retaining public sector workers.
But it does not have to be this way, austerity is a political decision and one that can be reversed.
Austerity policies in Westminster have seen the Welsh block grant cut substantially since 2010, this in turn has filtered down to local government. The devastation this has caused on local authority budgets is there for anyone to see. They have spent seven years running at 100mph just to stand still.
Austerity is the most self-defeating policy in the history of British politics. It is clear that if the government wishes to pursue a sustainable, balanced and inclusive economic policy then it must focus on investment-led growth. It is only by investing in our infrastructure and public services that we generate the economic activity that enables us to both broaden prosperity and balance the budget.
If Neath Port Talbot, and councils across Wales, are to deliver public services that meet the needs of residents, then councils need the finance available for them to do that and public sector workers need to be paid properly for the work they do. This all starts at the Treasury and the Chancellor has a choice when he delivers his budget, he can either continue with an austerity agenda that has seen the deficit grow to £1.7 trillion since 2010, or he can invest in public services, scrap the cap on public sector workers and give Councils the money needed to give the workforce the pay they deserve.
If councils are to avoid breaking point then investment in public services and public sector workers is needed, now.