Conwy County Council is facing another difficult financial year, says its cabinet member for finance, despite an increase in the Welsh Government settlement.
A recent council report revealed Conwy has a debt of £161m, and whilst this level of lending is not unusual for public authorities, the council already faces numerous challenges ahead of the new financial year.
Last week Denbighshire County Council came under fire after it raised council tax by 2.95 per cent for the next financial year, as Gwynedd also proposed raising council tax by the same percentage.
Whilst Conwy won’t set its council tax until March for 2022/2023, Conwy’s cabinet member for finance, revenue and benefits Cllr Brian Cossey predicted another tough year ahead – even if the pressure of the pandemic abates.
“We have tried to keep council tax as low as possible,” said Cllr Cossey.
“I think we are the ninth lowest (in Wales) at the moment, but we have been even lower than that over the years.
“It’s (the rate) still open to debate and discussion. You can’t really compare percentages (between councils) because they are percentages of different figures. Both Denbighshire and Gwynedd have a higher council tax than we do.”
Conwy is set to receive a 9.5 per cent increase in its settlement from the Welsh Government, but this amount also comes with hidden costs that, Cllr Cossey claims, could make the council’s position even more precarious.
“It’s very difficult. This year we’ve had a 9.5 per cent increase in our settlement from Welsh Government, which sounds like an awful lot when last year it was just over 3 per cent,” said Cllr Cossey.
“The thing is, within that, they expect us to pay care workers the living wage, so that money is included. There are pay rises on the cards for teachers and for our own staff.
“Our own staff, our local government staff, haven’t had a pay rise in this financial year, although they are expecting one. The percentage there hasn’t been agreed, and of course, they are expecting a pay rise in the next financial year as well.”
Conwy also has an ageing population, reportedly the second most elderly in the UK, which means added care costs, and Cllr Cossey says both children and adults have suffered mentally due to the pandemic, again increasing the need for greater social service budgets.
“The really big one (cost) is social services,” he said.
“There is a huge pressure on adult social services and on children’s social services to increase their budget. We have one of the highest percentages of older people in Britain. Japan has the highest percentage of retired people in the world, but if Conwy was a country, rather than a county, we would be older than Japan. So that puts it into context.
“We’ve got to make sure we can accommodate the financial pressures year on year for the people who need the care. Unfortunately, one of the results of people having COVID and people having to lock down is a bigger call on our children’s services department.
“They are having more children they have to take care of because of people having to stay at home, families having to stay at home. They have more children they have to keep an eye on than they’ve had before. Children haven’t been able to play with their friends. All the sporting activities ground to a halt. It’s been really hard on children.”
Cllr Cossey added: “The other big thing is homelessness. We have a huge problem with homelessness at the moment. When you say ‘homelessness’, people automatically think of people sleeping in doorways. It isn’t actually the case. There are families that are homeless that we are looking after. They’ve been evicted or the houses they did live in have been converted into AirBnBs and such like.
“It is another massive call on resources. They are expecting they will need an additional £2m this year to cope with the homelessness situation.”