A FREEZE on Staff Wages, [...]; COUNCIL CUTBACKS: THE AWFUL TRUTH

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Byline: SPECIAL REPORT By TOM BODDEN

A FREEZE on staff wages, fewer jobs, axed bus services, closure threatened schools and rising leisure prices, the financial squeeze has hit councils and communities across North Wales.

But that is just the beginning, as council bosses brace themselves for unprecedented cuts in services forecast until the end of the decade.

Welsh local government minister Carl Sargeant will tomorrow announce the Welsh Government's revenue support package for councils, which makes up 80% of county hall income.

It is expected to stick largely to a three-year funding plan already agreed.

Welsh councils will face spending cuts and pressure to reduce essential services until at least 2020, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies. Council spending power could be up to 18% lower than in 2012 as the effect of austerity measures continue.

Even services that have so far been protected from spending curbs - education, social services, environment and refuse - will come under pressure, it warned.

Spending cuts have already undone over a third of the increase in spending of the previous nine years that is back below the 2005-06 level.

The North East of England, the region most similar to Wales, has seen a reduction in overall spending, excluding education, around twice as large as that in Wales (18.7% versus 9.3%).

This is partly explained by a Welsh Government decision not to ring-fence NHS spending and not to impose a council tax freeze as happened in England.

Dyfed Edwards, Plaid Cymru leader of Gwynedd council, admitted that the prospect of a further 18% cuts by 2020 was daunting.

"We have been enduring tight financial planning for the last six or seven years so a decrease in our budget is nothing new. What is new is the depth of the cuts now, we are talking about huge figures."

Councils needed to come up with more innovative ways of saving cash while providing better services, he said.

"We need to recognise that there are some services that the local authority will have to run - like education, social services - but there are other areas where perhaps communities can become engaged through voluntary groups looking at certain aspects of services, like third sector or social enterprises."

Councils could play a role in promoting access to capital funds to boost projects like affordable housing and new schools, he said.

"It's not more people with calculators we require in councils but people who can think creatively and dynamically."

Local government is a major employer, paying decent wages in North West Wales especially in areas without a large private sector, he said.

"We should never underestimate the impact on the local economy of this.

"In general we don't have a policy of compulsory redundancy although we have reduced numbers where opportunities have arisen and I have no doubt we will be looking to do so again."

Welsh ministers have encouraged more cooperation between councils over providing services to save cash.

Mr Edwards admits that there has been some limited success but some 77% of the council's budget is spent on statutory education and social services.

"The issue we should be facing up to is the structure of local government in Wales and there are opportunities for us to do that.

"Reorganisation of local government is the elephant in the room and the right thing to do would be to have that conversation.

"Collaboration is not as democratic and is piecemeal while reorganisation could save PS250m-300m across Wales."

Aaron Shotton, Labour leader of Flintshire council said that over three quarters of the public spending cuts are yet to come.

"We will need to redouble our efforts around public service reform.

"Councils may be forced to cut, or scale back spending on a vast array of services that they have traditionally delivered. …