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Council leader challenged by member of public over budget cuts

LEADING Swansea councillors took turns to highlight improvements in council services after their leader was challenged by a member of the public.

They defended Labour council leader Rob Stewart who, as in previous years, had been accused by Alec Thraves of not standing up to years of UK Government budget cuts.

Mr Thraves, of Socialist Party Wales, claimed that the Labour administration had just passed on those reductions and that “all services have been cut to the bone”, although he said this coming year’s financial settlement from the Welsh Government looked “relatively generous”.

Mr Thraves alleged that the quality of life of Swansea residents had deteriorated, and put it to Cllr Stewart that the authority’s wide-ranging budget and transformation policy, called Sustainable Swansea – fit for the future – had had a “devastating” effect.

Cllr Stewart hit back, as in previous years, saying the council’s policy has been to protect residents from the effects of UK Government austerity.

“We therefore had to find different ways of doing what we do,” he said, speaking at the January 9 cabinet meeting.

“We have not closed a single council service over that time. I don’t think there is a council in Wales or anywhere else who could make that claim.”

Cllr Stewart said services had also improved, and that most staff who had left had done so voluntarily or through early retirement.

He challenged Boris Johnson’s Government to live up to their generous pre-election promises, and pledged that Swansea Council would invest any extra money it received via Westminster in services.

Mr Thraves said he was staggered that Cllr Stewart could say services had improved after the authority had made nearly £70 million of savings in recent years.

Cllr Stewart demurred, insisting it was the case and that the council’s workforce deserved the credit.

After Mr Thraves had left the Guildhall and the coming year’s budget was discussed, cabinet members took to the service improvement theme.

Cllr Clive Lloyd, cabinet member for resilience and strategic collaboration, said services had been reshaped and modernised, not slashed.

He said he accepted there had been impacts, such as less council grass-cutting, but he said that Swansea was now one of the best-performing councils in Wales now having been one of the worst when Labour took over from the Liberal Democrat-led coalition in 2012.

Cllr Lloyd praised the authority’s recycling rate, strengthened IT infrastructure, planning department, and said the workforce was roughly the same in number than eight years ago.

Cllr Jennifer Raynor, who has the education brief, said no Swansea school was in any sort of measures from inspection body Estyn, adding that two schools had just been rated as outstanding.

“We have not cut services, we have improved services,” she said.

The council is in line to receive an extra £17 million from the Welsh Government in 2020-21 but will still have to fund pay and pension rises and cater for growing demand for services like social care.

An as yet unknown council tax rise will help plug the expected shortfall.

Cllr Stewart said the budget report before cabinet did not tell the full story, which he said would emerge in the coming weeks before councillors set the budget in less than two months’ time.

“That story will, I think, be hugely positive,” he said.

The Labour leader predicted record investment in council services in 2020-21.

“The actual investment is significantly above anything that was predicted,” he said.

“This is a welcome one-year (Welsh Government) settlement – it needs to be repeated next year, and the year after that.”

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