THE closure of a day centre in Pontarddulais last month is one of numerous savings measures by Swansea Council in recent years.
Such actions rarely win politicians popularity prizes.
But councils everywhere face large gaps in what they need to spend and what they receive.
In a few weeks’ time, Swansea Council must agree a budget which addresses a £24.5 million shortfall in the coming financial year.
In Pontarddulais, with The Hollies day centre no more, councillor Kevin Griffiths has been liaising with church pastor Jason Beynon and council officer Richard Davies to see if they can provide other local venues, plus transport, for day centre users.
In some ways it is a snapshot of a UK-wide trend: councils retreating and focusing on statutory services like education, with other groups stepping in to help fill the gap.
In fairness the council said it has worked with The Hollies day centre users and found alternative services for some of them.
Talking to Mr Beynon, of Bont Elim Community Church, it sounds like Pontarddulais is fighting its corner.
“We’ve got two wonderful county councillors, and the town councillors will fight tooth and nail to make sure that people are looked after whether there is money or not,” said Mr Beynon, who is also a town councillor, youth group leader and lollipop man.
Over the past week he has added street gritter to his CV, but he claimed it needed several phone calls to the council from residents for the grit bin to be filled.
Mr Beynon praised the work of council officer Mr Davies, whose role as a local area coordinator is to support older people and their families. He runs a falls prevention group, among other things.
Again, this is a snapshot of how councils are focusing on prevention work – in this case by employing people in communities to help keep older people at home and feeling connected with those around them.
Referring to Mr Davies and his local area coordinator colleague down the road in Gorseinon, Mr Beynon said: “It’s more than a job for them. They have a passion for their area and a passion to help.”
At this point it might be easy to think that every community can simply absorb local Government cutbacks.
But Mr Beynon said Pontarddulais was fortunate to have three excellent community buildings, including the thriving hub at the rear of his church, and many volunteers willing to pitch in.
The 49-year-old puts in more than 80 hours of work a week, and feels like the rural town on the edge of Swansea was “forgotten”.
He said: “We are the backside of the county – we might as well be 1,000 miles away from Swansea.”
He added: “Adversity either crushes you or creates within you the desire to be innovative.”
It is a quote that could easily apply to local authorities.
Swansea Council seems more business-like every year, looking for ways to maximise income, outsourcing services to third parties, selling assets deemed surplus and looking to create new ones which can deliver income streams.
And, of course, reducing the payroll.
According to the council’s official accounts, between 2014 and 2018 a total of 991 employees took voluntary redundancy or early retirement, while a further 41 were made redundant. This has cost £27.2 million in exit packages, although that money is recouped after a year or two.
Charges for things like burials, school meals and domiciliary care have gone up, while parks maintenance and grass-cutting has reduced.
Entire departments have been reviewed to find more efficient ways of working, and things like leisure centres have been transferred to trusts to manage.
Means-tested day centre charges have been introduced, and there has been a move away from residential care to respite and reablement and helping people remain independent at home. One casualty is Parkway care home in Sketty Park, which is closing, although the council said residents had been fully supported and were now in suitable accommodation elsewhere.
The Labour administration has consistently prioritised education and has increasingly challenged the Welsh Government about specific grants, while pointing out it has no say on teacher pay rises or increasing pension costs.
In 2014/15, when councils in Wales really began to feel the austerity squeeze, Swansea Council faced a £26.2 million funding gap. Here were some of the 60 savings measures that year:
– Reduce school breakfast supervision costs
– Reduce support for park and ride and other bus services
– Cut subsidy for burials, cremations and registrars
– Reduce costs associated with parks
– Social services transport efficiencies
In 2015/16 there was a £26.7 million shortfall to deal with, and measures included:
– No more free black bags
– Less road lighting maintenance
– Decrease in CCTV camera provision
– Reduction in social services vehicles
– Review of delivery of free breakfast clubs
In 2016/17 a £21 million funding gap loomed. Actions to tackle this included:
– Cut the legal services budget
– Reduce grants to both third sector groups and the Wales National Pool and National Waterfront Museum
– Cut street cleaning overtime for staff
– Reduce use of seasonal gardeners who help the full-time ones
– Press on with the transfer of bowling greens to user groups
In 2017/18 the shortfall was the lowest for a while at £19 million. Savings measures included:
– Transferring the management of the Dylan Thomas Centre
– Less dredging, again, in the River Tawe near the marina
– Cut winter gritting
– Minimise the use of call-outs involving two domiciliary carers, known as double-handed calls
– Review eligibility criteria for social services transport
In 2018/19 – you’ve guessed it – further cuts were needed to address a £28.4 million funding gap, such as:
– Further increases in school meal costs
– Reduce staffing and opening hours at the Grand Theatre
– Cut sick pay expenditure
– Increase adult services charges
– Recharge users the costs of the Welsh translation service.
This takes us to the present day when yet more savings will be needed, such as potentially ending a book delivery service for the housebound, transferring the management of the Botanical Gardens in Singleton Park to a third party, and a 5% hike in bereavement charges.
And, yes, council tax will go up again.
As always the council is consulting the public on its budget proposals, and moves to introduce charging at car parks in Gorseinon and Morriston have been withdrawn.
Some people might say that the diminishing budgets have not had a dramatic effect on day-to-day life in Swansea, and have in fact been managed well.
There could even be an argument for saying that householders ought to pay for residents’ parking permits, as happens elsewhere, although Swansea Labour said this would not happen during the current term.
The Welsh Local Government Association has estimated that council funding in Wales from central Government has shrunk by more than £1 billion since 2009/10.
Last word to Mr Beynon, of Bont Elim Community Church, who emailed to say: “Whereas your story may be about the cuts of council income and expenditure, the positives that come out of this are the many wonderful community stories of people who are now stretching to meet a need.”