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Welsh councils urged to seek alternative savings in struggling leisure services

Many councils are “still too slow” in identifying alternative methods of delivering leisure services as a way to dodge, or minimise, the impact of major cuts to local authorities in recent years, the Wales Audit Office has said today (3 December).

According to the auditor, Welsh councils have reduced their spending on leisure services – a discretionary service unprotected from cuts, but that “hugely benefits” residents’ public health – by almost £18m in the last five years.

But many are not grasping existing opportunities to make further savings. In its report, the auditor found that the biggest reductions to leisure services made so far by 18 councils were achieved by transferring facilities to trusts. On average, councils transferring facilities to trust made annual savings of around £2.4m.

These alternative methods present useful opportunities to reduce expenditure without affecting these council services too much – especially since their use has increased by over 3% from 2009-10 to 2014-15.

But some councils are also looking too much at immediate financial challenges, and how to address these, rather than developing long-term approaches for future provision.

WAO auditor general, Huw Vaughan Thomas, said: “Councils across Wales are facing a tough time and are expected to deal with more difficult budget cuts. Our report highlights that councils have done well to deliver almost £0.5bn of cuts across their services in recent years.

“My report also shows that there are options to make further savings by changing how major leisure facilities are managed and provided in the future.”

The Welsh auditor made four main recommendations for councils in how they could improve service delivery.

Among them was the need for a clear strategic vision for leisure services, especially given that the vast majority of leisure provision still remains in council ownership. Existing strategies, the report said, don’t always provide the clear direction needed to safeguard services.

They should also undertake an options appraisal to consider alternative methods of delivery where cuts to the level of subsidy for leisure services present a sustainability risk in the medium to long term.

“Councils need to need carefully consider what they are providing, how they provide it, what they charge for it, and what they are ultimately seeking to achieve through their leisure provision,” the report said.

“In considering these options, councils need to have a clear understanding of the financial, social, economic, equality and sustainability issues they, their citizens and communities face, both at this time and also in the future.”

The findings of the auditor’s review also suggested that local authorities rarely focus on demonstrating the beneficial impact of these services on public health, with some councils not well-placed to monitor and evaluate this. Because of this, councils should start using robust data to allow officers, members and citizens to judge the leisure service performance.

The auditor’s warnings and recommendations come at a time of upheaval for councils in Wales, with all 22 local authorities currently subject to a Bill that could radically re-shape how they operate.

Under the Draft Local Government Bill, published last week, councils would be merged into eight or nine to find £650m of savings over a decade. While the government guarantees that the merger would pay for itself within two or three years, it is expected that the reform will result in 1,900 fewer jobs and a steep drop in councillor numbers.


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