A tough council budget for Welsh social services

Faced with what is said to be the worst local government settlement for 10 years, Welsh councils will struggle to maintain their current range of social care and education services.

The warning from the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) comes after it was forced to accept defeat in its battle to get ministers to implement its alternative budget, which set out “realistic options” to increase the Revenue Support Grant (RSG) to councils for 2008-11.

It says that, consequently, the average rise for councils in the latest Welsh assembly government settlement will be 2.5% – an unrealistic increase to deal with the scale of many local authorities’ problems.

In its alternative budget, the WLGA had proposed an RSG increase of 3% by transferring £26.4m from other budget lines such as public service ICT networks and waste revenue. While such a rise would still have left the RSG more than £100m short of the sum, the WLGA’s expenditure sub-group say is needed to meet increased pressures on local government, the extra money could have helped councils to achieve efficiencies to maintain existing services.

Beverlea Frowen, WLGA director of social services, predicts even tougher times ahead, with the 2.5% average increase applying only to 2008 and the situation for subsequent years perhaps even more challenging.

The result could be further cuts or even tighter eligibility criteria for some basic preventive services, including home care and day care centres. For children’s services, it could mean peripheral services such as sex education and teenage pregnancy initiatives will find it harder to hold on to funding.

“Councils have had extreme difficulty in setting their budgets for this year,” says Frowen. “We know there are councils looking critically at their charging regimes – and they are already very high in terms of eligibility.”

She says the “leanness” of the settlement only increases pressure on councils, which have been warned they face capping if they announce council tax increases of more than 5%. “When you’ve only got three sources of income – central grants, council tax and charging – it makes it hard to square that circle.”

Demographic time bomb

Frowen says most councils’ social services have already embarked on a significant efficiency drive, under which charges are being assessed and services amalgamated, but insists they will “continue to make a commitment to protect frontline services”.

Crucially, she says the settlement makes no provision for transitional funding to allow social services and health to further develop closer working relationships, despite this being a recommendation of successive reviews over the past five years.

“This has come at the worst possible time,” she says. “We’re facing a demographic time bomb there is huge pressure with learning difficulties as well as those people with more complex needs over 85.”

Frowen says the “abysmal” financial settlement for social care is at odds with the sector’s growing profile with the Welsh assembly government.

“The focus on social services in the assembly has increased of late,” she says, highlighting the appointment of Gwenda Thomas as deputy minister for social services. “So you can’t say they haven’t given us any money because they don’t care.”

Frowen says that, although recent reports have revealed a year-on-year improvement in social services in Wales, there is still more to do. “We haven’t improved enough and we want to do more,” she says. “But the prospects are not looking good.”

Victoria Lloyd, head of public affairs for Wales at Help the Aged, says the charity shares the WLGA’s concerns over the assembly’s “tight” settlement and is calling for increased provision in home services – a service area that has suffered from increasingly restrictive eligibility criteria.

Widening gulf

“It’s actually becoming harder and harder to get help,” Lloyd says. “We are talking about low-level help such as home visits or help with the shopping. It’s in these services, if there was more money available, that we would like to see changes being made.”

For Lloyd, the assembly budget fails to address the widening gulf between people in acute need and those who should receive preventive care. “You used to see larger numbers of people getting low numbers of hours [of care] because their needs were moderate,” she explains. “Now you see less people receiving more hours of care. We’re not saying that’s not important but it’s about how the balance has switched.”

Raymond Ciborowski, director of Barnardo’s Cymru, adds that it is important for the “improvement momentum” to be maintained if social services are to avoid letting down children and young people. He says the WLGA is right to highlight the funding shortfall in core local authority budgets given the levels of unmet need.

Both Lloyd and Frowen agree more social care services should be made available at an earlier stage as part of a preventive strategy. And Frowen praises the assembly’s recent announcement that it will undertake a review of social services funding in Wales following lobbying by the WLGA.

In the meantime, however, she predicts difficult times: “It’s like trying to put a sticking plaster over the cracks. If we had to make an assessment report of our situation we would say we are meeting most needs but with uncertain prospects.”

This article appeared in the 13 March issue under the headline ” A lean and mean budget”

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