Public services in Wales face swingeing cuts as the Welsh Government grapples with the toughest budget decisions since the dawn of devolution.
Welsh ministers have announced additional funding for the NHS, schools and social care but many other areas will be cut under spending plans for the year from April 2024.
Rural affairs is the hardest hit overall, with the budget decreasing by £50m or 12% compared to indicative 2024/25 budget plans from February 2023.
The economy portfolio is down £41m or 6.9%, social justice contracts by £7.5m or 4.1%, and the education and Welsh language budget falls by £65m or 1.6%.
The Welsh Government central services and administration budget is down £27m or 8.2%, while local government and climate change fall by 0.2% or £16m and £7.8m respectively.
Funding for health and social services is up by £725m or 6% and the revenue support grant for councils – which funds schools and social care – has also been protected.
The figures above have not been adjusted for inflation which is currently running at 4.6%.
‘Stark and painful’
Rebecca Evans, Wales’ finance minister, stressed that the overall budget is worth £1.3bn less in real terms than when it was set by the UK Government in 2021.
In the recent autumn statement, the Chancellor provided an extra £165m for Wales and UK ministers have stressed that the Welsh Government bears ultimate responsibility.
Ms Evans said Welsh ministers have faced “stark and painful” choices in radically reshaping spending plans to protect the frontline services.
She said: “We have had to take some really difficult decisions to radically redesign our spending plans to focus funding on the services which matter most to the people of Wales.
“After 13 years of austerity, a botched Brexit deal, and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, this is the toughest financial situation Wales has faced since the start of devolution.
“Our funding settlement, which comes largely from the UK Government, is not enough to reflect the extreme pressures Wales faces.”
While budgets for Healthcare Inspectorate Wales, Childcare Inspectorate Wales and Estyn have been protected, funding for other arm’s-length bodies has been hit hard.
The Arts Council, Museum Wales, Cadw, National Library, Sport Wales and the National Botanic Garden face cuts of more than 10% compared to initial plans for 2024-25.
Meanwhile, Cadw and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales face cuts to day-to-day spending of more than 22%.
The Welsh Government also announced changes to business rates, with relief for pubs, shops and restaurants reduced from 75% to 40%.
Andrew RT Davies, the leader of the Conservatives in the Senedd, described the draft budget as one of “soundbites over substance”.
He said: “Labour ministers have run Wales for 24 years, failing to reform public services and deliver results for the people of Wales; we have record waiting lists in our Welsh NHS.
“The Conservatives would spend every penny the Welsh Government receives for health, on health and deliver a substantial workforce plan to tackle Labour’s excessive waiting lists.
“This budget is as much Plaid Cymru’s as it is Labour’s and are equally to blame for the hardship inflicted by cuts to the rural affairs, education and economy budgets to fund pet projects like blanket 20mph and sending more politicians to Cardiff Bay.
“By cutting apprenticeships and putting forward a less generous offer on business rates than England, Labour and Plaid have shown they have given up trying to grow the pie.
“For them, economic growth, opportunity and young people’s futures are an afterthought.”
Mark Drakeford recently confirmed that funding for the 46 commitments under the Welsh Government’s cooperation agreement with Plaid Cymru has been ring fenced.
The deal, which is entering its third and final year, sees the party back the budget in the Senedd – with a debate and vote on the draft 2024/25 plans expected in early March.
However, Plaid Cymru leader Rhun ap Iorwerth branded the draft budget “unsustainable” and said the proposals would have a “serious long-term impact on Wales”.
Mr Iorwerth blamed the Welsh and UK Governments for the tough economic situation and said: “On one hand, the funding deal from the UK Government is unfair and inadequate.
“That’s true of the present Conservative government and there’s no commitment from Labour that they’d put that right either.”
He said serious questions needed to be asked of how Labour spends public money.
The Plaid Cymru leader also said he was disappointed his party’s request to recall the Senedd during its current recess, so the proposals could be debated, was rejected.
Jane Dodds, the Lib Dem leader in Wales, described the £26bn budget announcement as the “same old deal that leaves Wales standing still”.
She welcomed extra funding for the NHS and councils but warned: “The fact remains that huge parts of Wales are still being left behind with this budget, in particular rural Wales.
“We need more investment in our rural areas and more support for our farmers.
“Labour and Plaid Cymru have failed to deliver for the challenges of rural Wales with this budget, leaving farmers and other small businesses marooned to fend for themselves.”
Ms Dodds took aim at the UK Government, saying: “Make no mistake, Wales' economic strife has been caused by a party who many of the Welsh population haven’t voted for.
“The Conservatives can make a big song and dance about the faults with this budget, but they should be reminded that it’s their colleagues in Westminster who are responsible.”
On Wednesday, 20 December, MSs on the Senedd finance committee will scrutinise Ms Evans on the Welsh Government’s draft 2024-25 spending plans.
The provisional local government settlement – which will set out how much each of Wales’ 22 councils will receive in 2024/25 – is set to be published at 11am on the same day.