Posted: Fri 8th Dec 2023

Councillor Calls for School Closures to Prevent Council Bankruptcy

North Wales news and information
This article is old - Published: Friday, Dec 8th, 2023

A councillor has called for schools to be closed to help a cash-strapped council avoid potential bankruptcy. Paul Luckock, who represents Pensarn Pentre Mawr, told a Conwy County Council finance scrutiny committee that it was an “absolute no brainer that we’ve got to tackle this issue”.
His proposal comes as it was revealed the authority was modelling for a council tax rise of up to 10% from April as it still faces a budget shortfall of £24.5million – even after it authorised the highest council tax rise (9.9%) in Wales last year. But his “repeated” suggestions of school closures got short shrift from Conwy’s lead member for education Cllr Julie Fallon who reminded him of the importance of the Welsh language and providing for rural communities in the county.
Cllr Fallon told the Abergele councillor his experience of “rationalising” Liverpool’s schools during the 1980s could not be compared to the education provision in rural North Wales. The debate about school closures broke out as councillors were discussing the likelihood of another below average local government settlement from the Welsh Government – that figure is set to be announced on December 20.
As well as cutting the education budget by 10%, councillors discussed yet another council-tax hike, extra service charges, and more cuts to service budgets.
Cllr Luckock, a former Liverpool City councillor, admitted he would vote for an increase in council tax in Conwy, rather than the council issuing a section 114 notice declaring itself bankrupt. “Charlie (leader Cllr McCoubrey) will know that I will vote for significant council tax increases, significant cuts and savings, and increases in charges, and I’m clear about that in my own mind,” he said.
“(But) I don’t think having a section 114 on your CV is something I would want.” Cllr Luckock was one of the “Liverpool 47” Labour councillors disqualified and surcharged from Liverpool council in the 1980s, after it set an illegal budget. He claimed Liverpool council had found itself in a difficult position because it didn’t make changes to its school system soon enough, which was why he supported closing schools on Conwy now.
“We are in a situation where the auditor general in 2021 reported to us and has said if primary schools have less than 100 pupils and secondaries have less than 700, they are not viable from a cost and attainment (attendance) perspective,” he said.
“We have 21 schools with under 100 pupils, and we have two secondaries under 700. If we had tackled this issue, these savings are not going to accrue immediately obviously, and as Amanda (Amanda Hughes, head finance officer) has said quite clearly, in future years we need to continue to make savings. Next year is not going to be any easier.
“It seems to me an absolute no brainer that we’ve got to tackle this issue, and we’ve got to use this budget to start that process.”
He added, “People argue back to me why we are not tackling these issues. The professional leadership and the political leadership argue back to me that it’s very complicated; it’s very difficult, and there will be much controversy in doing this: closing schools, amalgamating schools, rationalising our school estate, reorganising them, having bilingual schools, dual-stream schools.
“Obviously (I am) very respectful as I am of rural schools, networks of schools. Fully supportive of that. But my question is both to the professional leadership and political leadership. Why is it you are so resistant to tackling this issue? It has to be done in the present context. We cannot keep putting off these sorts of difficult decisions.”
But Cllr Fallon insisted pupil numbers are set to rise and that Conwy’s approach would be methodical. “In 2026 we are expecting to see the biggest increase (of pupils) we’ve seen since 2016 with over 1,050 additional learners,” she said.
“So I think we have to be incredibly careful when we just sit here saying ‘we will shut the schools… we will shut the schools’. It needs to be done in a way that is appropriate and planned. We need to make sure where those increases (in pupil numbers) are, so we are not setting ourselves up for failure and not closing certain schools and finding ourselves trying to build new ones in the coming years or increasing the cost further of home-to-school transport.”
She added, “It is very different to Liverpool. I know you bring that up repeatedly, Paul (Cllr Luckock). But we have to consider the Welsh language. It is incredibly important to us. This is not just schools that are below a hundred pupils. This is schools in communities that are well established and have been there for a long time and serve a very different group of people than perhaps an inner-city Liverpool school may do. We are continuingly looking at ways of addressing this.”
Cllr Fallon also explained that most school buildings were very old, and that they were no longer fit to accommodate as many pupils than at the time they were built. She also said 20% of Conwy schools already shared headteachers.
Cllr Luckock said: “There will be enormous pressure to resolve redundancy issues that will be there, and to say the present position as Julie (Cllr Fallon) has asserted is methodical is a nonsense. It is an absolute nonsense.”
Cllr Fallon denied that characterisation: “The majority of councillors within this chamber are governors at schools, and they are working incredibly hard to find solutions to this, and I think it is really unfair of you to say that schools are doing nothing and to use words like nonsense. It isn’t a nonsense.
“They are working incredibly hard. We have had a number of redundancies this last year. A lot of schools are just not replacing staff. Usually, over the years, they’ll put someone in temporarily, and then they will make them permanent. They are just not doing that now. Those fixed-term appointments are being discontinued, and that’s how they are making reductions.
“The staffing levels at schools are significantly less than they were. So you need to be really careful. This is a public meeting when you sit and use words like nonsense when we are talking about this work that schools are putting in. It is completely inappropriate. They are working very hard, and I think that’s incredibly unfair.”
Councillors backed the report on the local government budget and will await the indicative local government settlement, due to be announced by Welsh Government on December 20.

By Richard Evans – Local Democracy Reporter



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