Can schools and care escape cuts?

Council services

Another year, and another dire warning from councils about the state of their finances.

What feels different this time is the focus on the kind of core services considered by many to be untouchable: schools and social care.

Until this point, the debate on local government cuts has mainly revolved around libraries, leisure centres and local community halls. Not any more.

School budgets are difficult to calculate. In the last assembly term, the Welsh Government ring-fenced money for schools at a percentage point above the block grant from Westminster.

That did not necessarily guarantee a real-terms rise but has offered a degree of protection.

Freedom

For the record, Welsh Government figures show school spending per pupil for 2017/18 is £5,628.

At the start of the period of cuts in 2010, that figure stood at £5,418.

Councils now have more freedom in the way they fund schools, although ministers in Cardiff Bay have an expectation that they will maintain the core day-to-day budgets at the current level.

But cuts arrive in different ways. Local authorities may feel they have no choice but to charge schools more for services like cutting the grass or reduce funds that provide resources for pupils with additional learning needs.

Throw into the mix how certain counties spend more on school transport and pupils from economically deprived backgrounds, and you begin to understand why the NAHT teaching union believes there is a lack of transparency when it comes to school spending in Wales.

Vulnerable

According to Welsh Government figures, the amount of funding that local authorities delegate directly to schools ranges between 77% and 89%.

However the money eventually gets to schools, the point is that it now appears more vulnerable than at any point in the past seven years.

For example, the leader of Torfaen council Anthony Hunt, who also speaks for the Welsh Local Government Association on finance, told me he would be surprised if the number of classroom teaching assistants did not go down in the next financial year.

When it comes to social care, we get into the territory of how local authorities and the NHS work together - two huge organisations having to liaise on the complex medical conditions of an ageing population.

The leader of Wrexham council Mark Pritchard broke ranks this weekend in the way he openly criticised what he believes is a lack of financial control in the NHS. Privately, others agree. They also believe that social care should be given the same importance.

They may have a point; I was recently at Singleton hospital in Swansea where I was told the average age of patients is over 80. If residential or care at home is not provided by local authorities then hospitals like Singleton would grind to a halt pretty quickly.

Creative answers

So the challenges for councils are there for all to see, and many of these Labour-run administrations will be queuing up to criticise the spending policies of the UK Government.

But there are two areas where questions will be asked of councils themselves.

They have complained bitterly before. I have frankly lost count of the number of Armageddon warnings from the local government lobby in recent years, and yet we have not seen the kind of mass closures in libraries and community facilities many had predicted.

In fact, 15% of libraries have closed in Wales in the past decade. So the point is not that it is easy, the point is that they have proved resilient, even creative, in finding answers and the question is whether they can do the same with education and care?

And finally there is the challenge they have of persuading many doubters of the lingering question of whether 22 councils is too many.

Re-organisation has gone away but the arguments used by those wanting to reduce the number was to cut down on cost, and the councils will have to persuade people they are serious about sharing back-office functions like payroll and legal services.

So far the Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford has not been that impressed by the speed it is happening.