The Local Government Settlement

January 11, 2012 2:57 PM
By Peter Black
Originally published by Peter Black and South Wales West Liberal Democrats

Peter Black: I did not have a great deal to say on this motion until the opposition spokesperson contributed. It was unfair of Janet Finch-Saunders to accuse the Minister of being unimaginative. I have heard Carl Sargeant called many names in the past, but 'unimaginative' is a first. I have difficulty in working out how exactly the settlement is unimaginative. You have money, and you give it to local government; it is fairly straightforward to process. It does not take a great deal of imagination to understand that particular aspect.

I must say, however, that the criticism by Janet Finch-Saunders of the local government settlement was unfair in terms of the overall sum available. We must all accept that both the Welsh Government and UK Government have to cut their cloth according to the economic circumstances in which they find themselves. We must all recognise that we do not have the resources that were available in previous years. The first year of the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition Government in 2000 had a generous local government settlement because quite a lot of money was available in the Welsh block, but that amount of money has been diminishing ever since. When you have a situation in which the Welsh block is effectively at a standstill, it is only reasonable to assume that that will also apply in relation to the local government settlement. The criterion that needs to be applied in measuring the settlement is whether local government is getting a similar increase or change in its budget to that which the Welsh Government has received from the UK Government. If that is the case, I do not think that we can quibble too much about the money that is available, as long as local government is being treated on the same basis as the other services that the Welsh Government funds. Even the Welsh Government would recognise that that is fair and proper.

The last time that the Welsh Conservatives published an alternative budget, before the last election, the amount of money that it would have taken from local government to fund the extra £1 billion or so that it wanted to put into health was quite extraordinary and would have decimated the services that local government provides, including social services, which link with health. It is all very well to stand there and criticise, but you have to be realistic about this particular budget and how it is applied.

I was particularly pleased by the Minister's announcement on assisted borrowing, which is very important because, particularly in terms of highways, we have failed to address the declining quality of Wales's roads over the last few years. Things have got worse, and making resources available to local authorities against which they can borrow if they wish-I am getting the wording right for the Treasury-is important, because that sort of investment will make a big difference. I hope that, if that policy of assisted borrowing continues, we will be able to do something similar in relation to schools. The big challenge facing local government is the £4 billion or so identified by the twenty-first century schools programme that needs to be invested to get schools around Wales up to standard. Any assistance that the Welsh Government can give local authorities to find their 50 per cent for that scheme will be very welcome.

The Minister did not mention the pupil deprivation grant, which I think is a particularly good part of the money going to local authorities. It may not be part of this budget, but it is important that that money is going to schools and that the extra money is there to help pupils who are underperforming because of their economic circumstances. That is particularly helpful.

I also welcome the extra money for schools and for social services. We would all like more money for local government. I would particularly like to see fewer direct grants; I recognise that there has been progress on that, but I would like to see more progress. However, on balance, we are happy to support this motion, because it seems to us that, in the circumstances, it is the best possible settlement that we can give local government.

What would you like to do next?

</