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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 December 2007, 18:40 GMT
Coalition passes first major test
Guto Thomas
BBC Wales Political Correspondent

Councillors from Powys and Conwy lobbied assembly members
Councillors from Powys and Conwy lobbied assembly members
The "One Wales" coalition government has passed its first major test - by resisting calls to change its budget.

The opposition parties had demanded changes to the draft budget, including extra cash for local government.

Finance Minister Andrew Davies told assembly members it was crucial to make the Welsh pound stretch further.

But a delegation of councillors from Powys told ministers a small increase in funding would make a dramatic difference in delivering core services.

According to Mr Davies, this budget is all about service delivery, rather than arguments about how much extra money may or may not be available over the next three years.

He told assembly members the budget was a crucial stage in delivering the "One Wales" programme, which would transform Wales into a wealthy, prosperous and successful country.

Difficult decisions

A key element was to make the Welsh pound stretch much further, as part of the assembly government's drive towards improving the delivery of public services and increasing value for money.

He also said it was inevitable during such a tight financial settlement, that "tough and difficult decisions" had to be made about the government's spending priorities.

The Welsh Conservatives made their opposition to the draft budget more than clear, by tabling 18 amendments - 10 spelling out the specific areas where the official opposition "deplored" the government's spending priorities.

Particular criticism focused on the lack of capital funding for building and maintenance for the NHS, schools, and the transport infrastructure, as well as a shortfall for flood defences, social housing and road safety.

Shadow finance minister Angela Burns said: "This is a disappointing but hardly surprising result."

View of the Senedd from the public chamber
Assembly members will consider any budget changes over Christmas

"In supporting this budget Labour and Plaid Cymru have voted for an inadequate settlement which fails to safeguard frontline public services."

"Welsh Conservatives will continue to oppose this budget until the Labour-Plaid Cymru government makes key public services its priority."

Welsh Liberal Democrats were more focused, basing their opposition to the spending plans on five fundamental reasons why the budget was totally unacceptable.

Party leader Mike German claimed it was the most unreadable budget ever seen.

He also accused the assembly government of producing a "pathetic" budget, and of betraying local government, leaving council tax payers to pick up the tab, abandoning attempts to close the funding gap in education and stockpiling millions in their reserves.

Punitive

Both the Liberal Democrats and Welsh Conservatives were united in their attacks on the level of funding for local councils, which they argued could lead either to cuts in services or to significant increases in council tax.

Both parties called on the coalition government to postpone any new policy or spending initiatives, in order to concentrate limited resources on core services.

Councillors from across rural and north Wales made their presence felt in the Senedd, lobbying assembly members for an increase in their budget settlement.

The Welsh Local Government Association has already labelled the settlement as "punitive", with councils in rural and north Wales receiving the lowest levels of increase.

Powys, for example, is set to receive an increase of just 1%, which is effectively a cut after taking inflation into account.

Speaking ahead of the debate, Powys councillor Michael Jones said: "Rural Wales may figure massively on the map of Wales but it has slipped out of the minds of assembly ministers."

"I despair when I hear ministers talking about a commitment to our rural communities and yet constantly under funding health and local government services in our areas."

Disappointment

After the debate, Powys councillor Stephen Hayes, who led a delegation to meet Local Government Minister Brian Gibbons, said that there had been a very positive discussion about increasing the settlement for Powys, Conwy and Anglesey to 1.5%.

"The minister said he would listen carefully to our views, and we want to take him at his word."

"We think a very compelling case has been made for a minimum increase of 1.5%, and if he gives us that, we'll do the rest."

The assembly government will consider any changes to the draft budget over the Christmas recess, with a vote on the final budget in January.

SEE ALSO
Protest talks on council funding
11 Dec 07 |  Mid Wales



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