Axe to fall on councils in draft Welsh government budget

Image caption Ministers have said the protection Welsh councils have had against cuts cannot be sustained

With the Welsh government set to publish its draft budget for 2014-15 on Tuesday, BBC News examines the prospects for public services in the coming year.

Austerity has been with us since the turn of the decade - but these really are the hard yards now for those charged with balancing the nation's books.

The kind of simpler savings sometimes characterised as "low hanging fruit" are largely gone.

There's a noticeable change of tone from ministers in recent months, and a realisation that the cuts will just keep coming, to 2017 and probably beyond.

So what can we expect from Tuesday's draft budget? As always, the spending on the Welsh NHS will be under microscopic scrutiny.

It's faced "cash flat" budget settlements in recent years, meaning that inflation has eroded actual spending power year on year. After a summer of dismal headlines and missed targets, the feeling is that something has had to give and that extra money may be found.

But at what cost? Here is a breakdown of the Welsh government's spending by department:

So the vast majority of Welsh government spending is split between two departments - health and local government, with health by a margin the largest.

Any substantial increase in health spending is going to to have serious knock on impact elsewhere - and it's local government which is bracing itself for Tuesday's announcement.

The deeper cuts in council budgets were signalled in a speech by Local Government Minister Lesley Griffiths to the Welsh Local Government Association annual conference in June this year, where she said that the relative protection Welsh councils had enjoyed compared to their English counterparts since austerity began can no longer be sustained.

It means much tougher decisions in town halls up and down Wales from here on in - and since councils have been told to protect spending on schools and social care (their biggest ticket items) the axe will fall on areas such as leisure, highways and cultural services in a way not experienced by people so far.

What are the prospects for the Welsh government to get its own tough decisions on spending through the National Assembly this time round?

Without an overall majority, they've needed to do deals with other parties so far to get their budgets through.

This year, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats have joined forces to negotiate together, and with Carwyn Jones ruling out any deal with the Conservatives on principle, it's meant that his options have been significantly limited.

In previous years, negotiations have dragged on for weeks after the draft budget has been published. But - whisper it quietly - there appears to have been an outbreak of political maturity in Cardiff Bay.

Following what are reported as constructive discussions ongoing through the summer, we could see a comprehensive deal announced as early as today between Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats.

But getting the votes to pass the budget will be the easy part.

Making sure the health service makes the most of any extra cash and supporting local government through the knock on impacts of what are likely to be the deepest cuts in most councillors' political lifetimes will be a far bigger struggle.

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