Posted: Fri 1st Mar 2024

Councillors fail to approve 8% council tax rise for Merthyr Tydfil residents

news.wales / newyddion.cymru

Councillors have failed to approve a budget which would have seen an 8% council tax rise for residents in Merthyr Tydfil next year.
There was a 14-14 split in terms of the vote at a meeting on Wednesday, February 28, including two abstentions one of which was from the mayor who also decided not to use his casting vote.
Another meeting will be held next week to decide on a budget for next year as the deadline to set it is March 11.
The 8% rise was being proposed along with a minimum of £9.4m in efficiencies and cuts to address the £12.52m funding gap.
The proposals also included the use of £2m from the budget reserve towards closing the budget gap which the council’s head of finance, Liam Hull, said was the maximum they could use without risking the council’s financial sustainability.
Councillors also voted against a proposal to reduce Cyfarthfa Park security to 12 hours overnight. After discussions Mr Hull said this would have led to an 8.2% council tax rise but given the relatively small nature of the saving the £70,000 would be included as an additional line in the budget and found from in year savings
Thoughts on the council tax proposal
Labour councillor Anna Williams-Price said she remained concerned that members were being asked about council tax without understanding the longer term impact of decisions because the medium term financial plan wouldn’t be available until March.
She said that the reserves were incredibly close to the minimum level and that future deficits would need to be met by further cuts and larger council tax rises, adding that she didn’t believe that was sustainable.
Independent councillor Lisa Mytton recognised the impact of austerity but also what the devolved nations got, adding that effective collaboration was important.
She said the Barnett Formula was “outdated” and said they could have a strong voice together for change in the interest of greater investment so they didn’t have to make these decisions.
She said: “We can only do what we can with the cards we are dealt” adding that it was the same for the Welsh Government from Westminster.
Cllr Mytton said: “It’s important to recognise that at all levels, not just at the high levels.”
Independent councillor Malcolm Colbran, mayor of the county borough, said “responsibility lay firmly at the door of Welsh Government” adding that the independent-run council had been financially prudent.
He said that the “system is broken” and that they needed more teachers and NHS staff not more Members of the Senedd.
He said it was not a situation they wanted to be in and that members needed to speak and vote according to their conscience so he’d be abstaining as he could not support an 8% rise.
Councillor Andrew Barry, independent cabinet member for finance and deputy leader, said: “In year savings is the thing that’s going to work for us” adding that “the system is broken.”
He said they’d only had 10 weeks to set this budget and that “we are not in a good position.”
He said they were in this position because of what was happening in Cardiff Bay and Westminster and until that changed, they were left with what they were left with.
He said: “We’ve got nowhere else to go” adding that they’d got to make these decisions to allow the council to carry on.
Debate over schools proposal
The plan for schools included budget cuts of £1.98m but the report said this applied after increasing the schools budget base for increased pupil numbers, pay awards, energy cost increases, new demands and inflationary impacts.
It said that, although there was a real terms reduction of 3.9% year on year, the schools budget was increasing in cash terms by £1.7m under these proposals.
The original contribution proposed from schools was £2.1m but this was reduced to £1.9m through the use of grant money.
The total planned education budget reductions of £2.46m also included £27,000 in savings from post-16 home to school transport with a charge for post-16 transport from September 1, 2025, applying to all students starting a post-16 course of study from September, 2025.
Councillor Darren Roberts, leader of the Labour group, said cutting the schools budget didn’t fill him with confidence that they would give their children the best start in life.
He said education had previously been in special measures and he feared they would go back to those sad days with a cut in budgets.
But Councillor David Hughes, independent, said there had actually been a 4.5% increase in the schools budget and that they’d put it up further than what the Welsh Government gave them.
The independent leader of the council, Councillor Geraint Thomas, said no one liked to take money out of the schools budget and that they wanted to give children the best start in life.
But he said they’d had some really positive results with some good Estyn inspections, adding “we are on the right track I believe.”
Councillor Lisa Mytton, independent, said even the Welsh Government has made budget cuts so “everybody is feeling the pinch.”
She said it was not palatable and not easy but they would look to ensure that standards did not drop.
Independent councillor Declan Sammon said nobody wanted to see education budgets cut and it was “worrying” but called on Labour to lobby their local MS to do more for Merthyr Tydfil.
Labour councillor Brent Carter said they found themselves going through the same process with the “same excuses” and said that they were “never ahead of the game.”
He said the independents had shown a “lack of political direction,” said it was a cut in real terms and asked if the administration really valued young people and their future.
Cllr Carter said they needed to make difficult decisions but that independent members hadn’t done that for the last seven years.
He said they hadn’t had time to put an alternative budget together as everything was last minute.
Councillor Gareth Lewis, Labour, said the cut of almost £2m in real terms would “inevitably” have a negative impact on schools and mentioned the concerns that had been raised by those who would have to deal with the reality of these cuts on a daily basis.
Labour councillor Clive Jones raised concerns that by the end of the financial year it was likely that 80% of schools would be in a deficit and that governing bodies would have to look at costs which could lead to staffing reductions.
Independent cabinet member for finance and deputy leader Councillor Andrew Barry said: “Nobody wants to do what we have got to do here.”
He said that the opposition were part of the Labour Party and that pointing fingers at the independent administration wasn’t going to change anything.
He said they should be pointing fingers at the Welsh Government and the local MS and added “we can only deal with what we have in front of us.”
He said no councillor had come there to erode public services. He said they’d come to support their communities but the system they worked under was broken and until that system changed they would always be sitting there with reducing budgets.
Cllr Barry said: “We are prepared to make the difficult decisions” adding that they could only make decisions with the finance available to them.
The use of reserves 
Discussing the use of £2m from the budget reserve towards closing the funding gap, Labour councillor Brent Carter said cabinet had taken business cases out of the budget and that they were using £500,000 more from reserves than they were going to initially.
Councillor Darren Roberts, said it was down to the local authority how it chose to use money and that it was a “political choice” by an “out of touch independent administration.”
But Councillor Geraint Thomas said Labour were willing to put £2m back into the budget which would have meant another 2% in council tax for the residents of Merthyr Tydfil.
Labour councillor Clive Jones said devolved administrations got their money from UK Government which he said had refused to negotiate the Barnett Formula.
Independent councillor David Hughes said the Barnett Formula wasn’t correct but also pointed to Welsh Government spend on 20mph, extra Members of the Senedd, and the relief road. ‌​‌​‌​​​‍‌​‌​​‌‌‌‍‌​‌‌​​‌​‍‌​‌‌‌​‌‌‍‌​‌‌‌‌​​



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