Newport Council’s MASSIVE £2.3million ‘underspend’ in it’s budget?
In February 2018, it was announced that our Council Tax was to be increased by 4.8%. Labour’s Newport Council Leader Debbie Wilcox is on record as saying it was a “challenging budget”. Fast forward one year later to February 2019 and it was announced our Council Tax was to increase again by a whopping £5.95%. Cllr Wilcox then spoke out to say that “services are stretched beyond breaking point”.
This week, we’ve now learnt that our Council have revealed an ‘underspend’ in it’s budget to the tune of £2.3 million from the last financial year. Forecasting & budgeting is never an ‘exact science’ so you’ll always expect to see a variance in what the Council projects it will spend compared to what it actually does.
But let’s be perfectly clear:- £2.3 million is a staggeringly big amount.
WHAT COULD THE £2.3 MILLION HAVE BEEN SPENT ON?
If you go back to the Spring of 2018 there was sheer heart-break and stress from worried families of children with Special Needs as the council proposed to leave the regional SenCom scheme. This scheme supports hundreds of disabled children across the City. Questions have now been raised by members of the public on Social Media as to whether all the heart-break inflicted was necessary, if the Council had forecast it’s budget better? This is a fair question to ask. The Council did eventually backtrack over it’s decision to leave SenCom. This came in part, after good coverage from the South Wales Argus and it’s reporter Sam Ferguson.
In September 2018, a revenue budget report revealed that all but five of Newport’s schools were on course to collectively overspend by £2.1 million during 2018/2019. Newport Council predicted that nine schools will be in the red, with a cumulative deficit of £1.6 million. The revenue budget report said “The likelihood is that the vast majority or all schools will have negative balances in 2019/2020 unless action is taken to reduce spend or increase funding.”
Being from St.Julians - and having two children attending St.Julians Comprehensive - I’m well aware of how cash strapped our local School is. In 2018, I campaigned for the School to have ‘double-glazed’ windows installed after pupils said they were sat shivering in their classrooms during the winter months. My efforts partially paid off as the West Block did have new windows fitted. Sadly, the East Block is still in need of attention. This is a school still sat in ‘Special Measures’ after almost three years. I know the staff and management are working very hard to turn the School around, but behind-the-scenes they are quietly crying out for extra investment. The School has now set up a parenting group called “Friends of St.Julians School” with a primary aim of raising extra funds.
REINVESTMENT OF THE UNDERSPEND
It is obviously good to hear that the Council will be reinvesting the £2.3million underspend into “specific earmarked reserve areas” such as £1million into the transformation of Newport's Chartist Tower, delivery of digital services, feasibility studies and this year's Christmas lights, etc.
However. In my view...
Rather than ploughing £2.3 million into ‘reserve areas’ - the Council should get it right first time. Shouldn’t they prioritise spending our money on ‘frontline services’ such as our Schools, safeguarding the vulnerable, street cleaning, repairing our roads, infrastructure, the City Centre and our Council Parks? Even phoning the Council for help now is problematic, when you’re welcomed with a ‘wait-time’ of 20 minutes and over fifteen people sat in the queue. The Information Station has now closed on Wednesdays. We’re paying more and getting less service.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow when you then find out there has been a £2.3 million underspend.
In October 2018, Westminster announced that the Welsh Government will receive an extra £550m over the next three years. Wales will get an extra £115.7m in 2018/19 and £425.9m in 2019/20.
Austerity is gradually coming to an end.
Welsh Governmental funding for Newport Council’s budget has gone up by 0.6% this year, although this is still well below the rate of inflation. We need to see this increased by our Labour led Welsh Government.
And in Newport? There are murmurings amongst the Newport Conservative Group that Cllr Wilcox has bitten off more than she can chew? Is she struggling to keep on top of it all? The bad news stories are now coming thick and fast. Every week now, I’m reading one petition from the public after another (and rightly so).
The message to Newport’s Council Leader is clear. Either shape up or ship out. Possibly, it’s time to go and pass the baton on to another who could display stronger leadership qualities.
St.Julians Conservative Branch.
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