A balanced budget protecting essential services and safeguarding hundreds of local jobs while increasing spending in important areas like education and social services was approved at a special meeting of Neath Port Talbot Council on Thursday (March 2nd, 2023).
Among the key points of the budget, which was recommended for approval to council by members of its Rainbow Coalition Cabinet at their meeting on Wednesday (March 1st) are:
- An increase in the Social Services budget of £13.8m (15%) – much greater than the increased financial settlement provided by the Welsh Government of 7.1%.
- A like-for-like rise in the delegated schools budget of £7.64m or 8% which is also above the council’s settlement from the Welsh Government.
- A 9% (£3.9m) rise in the Environment Directorate (delivering services such as highway maintenance, parks management and drainage).
- A proposed increase in fees and charges (in line with inflation) of 10% has been revised after taking into account residents’ feedback from public consultation – now, where fees and charges are in the control of the council, some will rise by only 5%. Around 1,000 people gave their views.
- A two-year expansion of the Welfare Rights Service, helping more residents maximise income through benefits advice and streamlining of internal assessments – ensuring residents find it easier to access what they are entitled to.
- No rise in pest control fees in 2023/24.
- Prudent use of £4.9m from general and specific reserve balances meant the council could meet the 13% net increase in the Fire Service Levy (paying for essential fire and rescue services) and could also maintain indoor leisure services safeguarding around 400 jobs.
Cllr Simon Knoyle, Neath Port Talbot Council’s Cabinet Member for Finance, Performance and Social Justice, said: “The 2023/24 budget was without doubt one the most challenging ever, given the background of Brexit, the continuing impact of Covid-19, the effects of the Ukraine war and inflation going above ten per cent. Even after its provisional Welsh Government funding settlement, the council was still facing a huge 2023/24 funding gap of £23.867m.
“A wide range of savings measures including a reduction in council buildings, better technology use, maximising savings from hybrid working and other efficiencies are continuing to help close the gap.
“Also, the budget contains a below-inflation 4.5% Council Tax rise, which would mean residents on Band A to C – which represents the vast majority of people in Neath Port Talbot – will pay between 96p and £1.28p per week extra for their essential services.
“This recommendation of course was not made lightly given the cost of living crisis. Council Tax only makes up a quarter of the council’s finances – the rest coming from Government funding. However, an increase was felt essential to ensure our vital services for residents are protected and we have even been able to increase spending in vital areas such education and social services.”
The Leader of Neath Port Talbot Council, Cllr Steve Hunt, added: “Among the many essential services provided by the council is economic development including inward investment and job and wealth creation and that is something we are envied for in Wales and further afield lllllat the moment.
“We’ve attracted the 1,000-job, £300m, Wildfox Resort in the Afan Valley, the £400m GCRE rail testing centre in Onllwyn with the potential for hundreds of quality jobs and are now involved in the Celtic Freeport bid, which if successful, promises 16,000 new, green jobs and £5.5bn of investment.”
After what Cllr Hunt described as ‘a lively debate’ on the budget proposals, an amendment by the Labour group to reduce the 4.5% Council Tax increase to 2% by using more money from general reserves was rejected by 30 votes to 26. Before the vote, Chief Finance Officer Huw Jones said the proposed amendment was “not prudent and not something I could recommend to council”.
Amongst its hundreds of services the council also offers a library service, a youth service engaging with 6,000 young people and a further 2,000 adults via community learning and theatres presenting more than 200 cultural events a year. Our leisure services contract (a process is under way to bring this back ‘in house’) also enables more than a million visits annually to leisure centres and swimming pools
The council also maintains 860 kilometres of roads, 940 kilometres of footpaths and 15,000 road signs, carries out 3.3m recycling collections and 1.6m refuse collections per year, maintains 19,000 lighting units, repairs 270 potholes per month, cleans 30,000 gullies a year, maintains 1,900 culverts,1,800 retaining walls and 356 bridges. Annual expenditure on Social Services, Health and Housing in Neath Port Talbot is £120m. It supports hundreds of looked after children, provides elderly services to hundreds of users, plus services for those with mental health, physical and learning disabilities and social worker support work to more than 3,000 adults, people with disabilities and a further 1,000 families through children’s social work teams.