RCT Council responds to challenging financial outlook
Written by Gavin on 15th November 2023
On Monday, November 20, Rhondda Cynon Taf Council’s Cabinet will consider options in response to a predicted £35m funding shortfall next year. Members will also consider key reports relating to Pre School-Day Childcare, Home to School Transport and various other operational changes.
The Council’s funding position is determined by the level of funding provided by the UK Government to Welsh Government, which will dictate the provisional Local Government Settlement due to be announced in December. The Council’s three-year budget gap is currently estimated to be £85.4m, and this includes a £35m gap for 2024/25.
Pre School-Day Childcare
Cabinet will next week consider proposals to continue to provide breakfast clubs, free of charge, which typically operate between 8.30am-9am each morning. One of the proposed options due to be considered by the Council’s Cabinet is to consult upon the introduction of a charge for the discretionary element of childcare provision, typically offered between 8am-8:30am, prior to the free breakfast being provided.
The proposal is to introduce a fee of £1 per day for the extra half hour childcare provision that is currently in place for children within schools, through the breakfast club service. Children who have been assessed as eligible for Free School Meals would be exempt from any charge under the proposal. The income generated would be re-invested into schools funding, to offset cost pressures.
It is important to highlight that the Pre School-Day Childcare proposals would in no way affect pupils’ access to breakfast club and a healthy breakfast free of charge, which will remain available for all pupils from Nursery to Year 6 in the 30-minute period before school starts (typically offered between 8.30am-9am). The proposed £1 charge (or £60 for a full term) relates to a period of childcare offered by some schools before school starts (typically from 8am-8:30am).
A public consultation on the proposal would run for six weeks (November 27, 2023, to January 8, 2024) and, if agreed, the change could be implemented from April 2024. The consultation would seek views in relation to other possible concessions to the £1 charge – such as families with more than one child using the provision.
Home to School Transport
The Council delivers the largest operation of its kind in Wales in a generous provision where 9,000 learners receive free transport on a discretionary basis – beyond the statutory level set out in Welsh Government’s Learner Travel Measure. The Council currently provides discretionary transport for more learners than almost every other council’s entire Home to School transport operation. Over the last eight years the Council’s Home to School Transport costs have increased from £8m in 2015 to more than £15m for the 2023/24 financial year.
In light of these increased costs, Cabinet will consider a proposal to amend the Council’s Home to School Transport Policy.
The preferred option would bring the provision for mainstream primary, secondary and college pupils in line with the statutory distance requirements. Primary pupils who live two miles or further from their nearest suitable school would continue to receive free transport (the current provision is set at 1.5 miles). Mainstream secondary and college pupils who live three miles or further from their nearest suitable school would continue to receive free transport (the current provision is set at two miles).
Under the proposed new policy, the discretionary elements of allowing a learner to select their nearest suitable school in accordance with choice of English or Welsh Medium language, or preferred religious denomination, would continue – as would providing pre-compulsory school age and post-16 transport. This is beyond the minimum statutory requirement.
The Council’s current policy in relation to Additional Learning Needs transport would remain unaltered under the proposal.
The preferred option would save £2.5m a year, while retaining an enhanced level of provision.
Cabinet Members could agree to a six-week consultation into the preferred option, which would run from November 27, 2023, to January 8, 2024. If agreed, the changes would come into effect for the commencement of the 2025/26 academic year.
Other Operational Changes
The Senior Leadership Team has undertaken focused and priority work to bring forward operational changes that will deliver £1.525m savings towards closing the budget gap. This is included within wider work to deliver general efficiency measures by Council departments, with £8.245m savings for 2024/25 having already been identified so far.
The operational changes include the Christmas-time closure of Hawthorn and Ferndale swimming pools, the closure of the face-to-face box offices at RCT Theatres (equating to 16 hours per venue each week), and a demand-led reduction of leisure centre hours (by no more than eight hours per week at each centre).
Furthermore, Library and One4All Centres will be reconfigured including a review of opening hours, while the Parks and Street Cleansing service will be reorganised to maximise efficiency. Community Recycling Centre opening hours will be reviewed, while a potential Community Asset Transfer of Llantwit Fardre Sports Centre will be explored. Full details are included in a report to Monday’s Cabinet meeting.
Councillor Andrew Morgan OBE, Leader of Rhondda Cynon Taf Council, said:
“No Councillor comes into local government with the intention to reduce the level of service provision provided – but unfortunately the harsh realities of the situation we face mean that we have no option other than to reconsider what services we prioritise, or how we can do things differently. All elected members have a responsibility to ensure the Council sets a balanced budget, and our proactive approach when previously faced with similar financial challenges is providing important financial resilience as we enter one of the most challenging funding periods, based upon current UK-wide public sector funding projections.
“Having balanced our largest-ever budget gap for the current financial year while avoiding major cuts in the process – and facing a further estimated budget gap of £85.4m over the next three years – the Cabinet will need to consider a number of officer reports which seek to address the significant shortfall in funding which the Council will face next year.
“The council has a duty to set a legally-balanced budget, but every year this becomes more difficult. It is wholly unfair that services we value have to be reduced as a result of the UK Government’s reluctance to prioritise public services.”
Mr Paul Mee, Chief Executive of the Council added:
“Cabinet will discuss a series of proposals brought forward by officers in response to significant financial pressures. Rhondda Cynon Taf is far from an exception in this regard. Like all public services, local government faces a huge financial challenge, which requires all councils to reconsider the levels of service it provides over and above the level we are legally directed to provide.
“Over the next three years the budget shortfall facing the Council is predicted to be around £85m. The means that difficult decisions cannot be avoided if the Council is to continue providing essential statutory services in the medium to longer term.
“Potential savings have been identified early in the Budget-setting process, enabling us to thoroughly inform and consult residents, consider the feedback received, and make final decisions before setting a legally-balanced budget in March 2024. If agreed by Cabinet on Monday, November 20, two separate six-week consultation periods for Pre School-Day Childcare and Home to School Transport would run from the end of November 2023 to early January 2024.
“It’s important to note that the Pre School-Day Childcare proposals will in no way affect pupils’ access to breakfast clubs – which will remain available for all pupils from Nursery to Year 6 in the 30-minute period before school starts. The proposed £1 charge relates to a period of childcare offered by some schools before school starts, and the proposals would formalise this in a 30-minute period before breakfast club. Four other Councils in Wales already charge for a similar service, and several others are currently considering it.
“Home to School Transport costs have almost doubled since 2015, with many councils having already altered their eligibility criteria. Welsh Government’s current guidance has been in place since 2014, and for almost 10 years we’ve provided free transport to around 9,000 pupils. The preferred option would align our policy with the Learner Travel Measure for mainstream primary and secondary pupils – while this revised policy would also apply to Welsh, Special and Faith school pupils, as well as Post-16 learners, where there is no statutory duty requiring us to provide transport. As a Council we would continue to provide a significant level of Home to School Transport provision beyond what we are legally required to do.
“A series of operational changes will also be considered as part of the ongoing effort to identify efficiency savings that won’t dramatically impact our services. Efficiency measures have been a key part of our Budget-setting process in recent years. However, this type of saving is increasingly hard to find, and officers have had to look at other operational measures such as reduced opening hours for some services, where usage data suggests it will have the smallest impact.
“This approach very much seeks to temporarily ‘turn-the-tap-down’, so when circumstance allows, through increased public sector funding in the medium to longer term, we are able to reconsider these service level changes.
“Having balanced our largest-ever budget gap for the current financial year while avoiding major cuts in the process – and facing a further estimated budget gap of £85.4m over the next three years – this is the responsible thing to do.”
Cabinet Members could agree to a six-week consultation into the preferred options, which would run from November 27, 2023, to January 8, 2024.