Thursday, 20 April 2017

Bridgend 2017: Key Issues Countywide

Are these big green lorries about to deliver a big steaming pile of s**t for Labour?
(Pic : Local Government Chronicle)

The next few posts will go over the key issues in Bridgend's local election. This isn't an unlimited list and I'm sure all of you have your own concerns you would want to raise with candidates yourselves. Today, I start by asking what key issues will affect everyone in Bridgend county regardless of where they live?

1. Rubbish Collections: "Bin Police" & The Two Bag Rule


This is the big doorstep issue and you know it is.

Yes, you can argue there are more important things to be worried about but this has genuinely got people talking. I'm not saying it's going to swing the election, but it'll have an impact as – other than highways – it's the only council service everyone in the county uses.

Bridgend has a spike in young families (that means pets, nappies and DIY-related waste) and there are some places – the Wildmill estate comes to mind – where rubbish collections have to be done communally due to the street layouts, meaning hiking your rubbish or recycling to a central location. This will make enforcing the two bag rule harder.

In my own part of Bridgend a sizable minority of households regularly put out many as 4 or 5 black bags a fortnight, and while there's no doubt most of it will be non-recyclable, you can see they still have things like cardboard inside them. They're in for a rude awakening when the fines start coming and will no doubt complain, "We didn't know."

The policy has been poorly communicated, there's still confusion over what can or can't be recycled and the council have under-estimated what impact the new contract could have on businesses and multiple occupancy homes.

We should be able to recycle things like polystyrene by now (it can be recycled) and things like garden waste collections should be free.

What the parties/candidates are saying (all of which are based on recent reports in the Glamorgan Gazette):

  • Labour have no choice but to support the new scheme as they signed it off, but have made a commitment that fortnightly black bag collections would continue for the five-year term.
  • Change for Bridgend accept any review of recycling and waste reduction will have to take place "within the constraints of the new contract", but will look to review the contract with an eye to raising the black bag limit and/or increasing the amount of material that can be recycled.
  • The Conservatives want to renegotiate the contract with Kier and introduce a scheme to incentivise recycling (they haven't explained what precisely they mean by that)
  • Plaid Cymru "oppose" the two bag limit but haven't, to date, outlined what they would do differently.
  • The Lib Dems want to use clauses in the new contract to "alleviate any problems where they exist".

2. Cuts to Schools

This is the second big issue. BCBC are set to cut just under £3.5million from schools over the next four years (1% cuts each year, as outlined in their most recent budget). This is despite Bridgend ranking 21st out of 22 Welsh councils for spending-per-pupil.

Despite the relatively low funding levels it hasn't affected outcomes with Bridgend performing reasonably well compared to Welsh averages.

It's also true that savings can be made through cutting down on surplus places, but it's highly likely most of the cuts will fall on staff – meaning teachers and support staff being made redundant. There've been estimates as many as 80 teachers in Bridgend could lose their jobs (40 secondary, 40 primary).

What the parties are saying:
  • Again Labour will have to defend the cuts because they signed them off. They want to invest up to £1.5million in free nursery placements for 3-year-olds and continue investment in new school buildings.
  • Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems have made commitments to reversing the 1% cut.

3. Future of Local Libraries & Cultural Services
(Pic : Bridgend Council)

The good news is that recent figures show that the number of people – particularly under-24s – using libraries has increased, with 51% of 16-24 year olds now using public libraries (I don't know what the Bridgend-only figures are). As mentioned earlier this week, satisfaction levels with Bridgend's libraries are also at extraordinarily high levels.

Nevertheless, when it comes to spending libraries are low down the list of priorities. Along with cultural services, they tend to be placed towards the bottom in budget consultations and that means that they'll probably be in line for significant cuts over the next few years.

Bridgend has "outsourced" the running of libraries and cultural services to Awen Cultural Trust, so in many respects responsibility lies with them, but BCBC still control a large part of the budget.

There've been no mention of closures and I don't think it'll happen as long as people keep using the services. Instead, we should probably expect reductions in services (i.e. shorter opening hours, staff redundancies, smaller grants for arts projects) over the next five years.

4. Adult Social Care & Looked-After Children

Social care is one of the big spending items for Bridgend Council, and with an ageing population demand for services are expected to increase with not much extra cash to fund it.

A significant chunk of domiciliary care services (aka. "home help") are already being outsourced to a number of private companies. On the residential care side of things, there's been an investment in new "extra care" facilities which will hopefully help continue Bridgend's good record of preventing "bed blocking" – but such facilities can be expensive.

There's also the chance the maximum limit councils can charge for care (currently £60 a week) – set by the Welsh Government – could rise in the next few years. The Welsh Government are already phasing in an increase in the amount of savings people going into care can keep for themselves, but there's no such commitment to keep care charges where they are.

On the children's care side of things, it's clear there's a need for urgent improvements, particularly when it comes to fostering and safeguarding children in residential care – there've been concerns raised that the location of children's homes in Bridgend puts children at risk of abuse, leading to some children being moved out-of-county at great expense.

As mentioned previously, Bridgend has one of the worst records in Wales when it comes to providing looked-after children with stability, being ranked towards the top for placing children with multiple foster families in a calendar year.

The incoming council will have big choices to make. Will they/are they able to cut other services to maintain social care? Will more care services be outsourced or privatised? Can we expect big council tax hikes?

What the parties are saying:
  • Labour want to continue investment in "extra care" homes as an alternative to residential care.
  • Plaid Cymru want to reverse cuts to respite services for full-time carers and also want to invest more in services used by the elderly (precisely what hasn't been explained yet).


5. Improving Engagement with Bridgend Council
(Pic : Copyright Jaggery and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence)
We're fortunate the Glamorgan Gazette is still going, even if it's 70% adverts, 30% news nowadays, but I honestly fear for its medium-term future like most other print newspapers in Wales. Yes, you can point to Bridge FM, Wales Online and even this site as attempting to to fill the gap, but there are limits to what I can do and it won't be around forever either.

The local Facebook pages – and there are a number of them in Bridgend - do an excellent job of flagging up local concerns and immediate breaking local news; they can be entertaining as well. When it comes to the nitty gritty, on some occasions they fuel over-reactions that feed the cynicism and populism that's eating away at politics. They are, nevertheless, now a vital part of the local media scene, but it's time for BCBC themselves to become more open.

Every meeting should be webcast. Councillors should be given more leeway to table motions for debate (full council meetings should become more of an "event"). The way BCBC communicates with the public needs an overhaul too; less PR fluff, more plain English in official reports, more objective facts and honesty please.

What the candidates are saying:
  • Change for Bridgend have made a commitment to be more open and undertake "meaningful" public consultations. They also propose a rolling programme of locally-focused capital projects undertaken with town and community councils - who would have a bigger role.
  • You would assume Plaid Cymru will continue their support for full webcasting of council meetings, even if it hasn't been officially mentioned yet. They also want to re-open scrutiny of the Local Development Plan.
  • The Conservatives want to introduce some element of "performance-related" allowances for councillors, coupled with a 10% cut in their pay.


6. The City Region/Regional Working


Local authority mergers are now off the table, so this won't be the last election to Bridgend Council (as I thought it would be).

Under the latest plans for local government reform, the Welsh Government intend for councils to do more work on a regional level. Sounds simple enough, but Bridgend is perhaps in a unique position in Wales in not falling under any specific region.

For example, Bridgend falls under the Cardiff Capital City Region deal and already has a number of high-level co-operation agreements with the Vale of Glamorgan. This also means Bridgend will be included in things like the South Wales Metro, with BCBC paying around £11million towards the deal as a whole. What can we realistically expect to get back?

On the other side, health and social services are planned and delivered in co-operation with Swansea and Neath Port Talbot (Western Bay Programme).

Why does this matter? Accountability, pure and simple. You need to know who's in charge of what and there's a real chance that in the near future Bridgend could be tied up in a number of regional agreements, each one with different partners and different committees etc. You try keeping tabs on that.



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