Cllr Jones and the slides of doom

The man from the Institute of Fiscal Studies called it 'Local Government Expenditure in Wales: recent trends and future pressures'.

Those watching his presentation on Friday referred to it as 'the slides of doom'.

They were, in the main, the men and women who are going to have to work out what to do when those 'future pressures' really become telling, or to put it another way, what has to go when local authorities in Wales have to start making the sorts of cuts they're already having to make in parts of England.

That was the thrust of the slides of doom, by the way. It's not 'if, it's 'when'.

How come things are already so much tougher for local authorities in England? Because the UK government has pledged to protect spending on the NHS and that means less money to go around, more cuts elsewhere in the budget.

In Wales, spending on the NHS has not been ring-fenced. Spending on our health services has faced a real-terms cut, which means the Finance Minister has to go on television and radio to justify why the NHS in Wales has the worst funding settlement throughout the UK. But it also means that there's more money to share across the budget and so the degree of difficulty so far for Welsh local authorities is more "challenging" than "truly scary".

If you're looking for "truly scary" try the north east of England. Take education out of the mix (because of the way much of the funding in England by-passes local authorities and goes straight to schools) and you'll see that while in Wales councils have taken an average hit of around 9% since 2009-10, the same figure in the North East of England is 19%.

The cuts that have already been made to social services by local authorities in the north east is three times the cuts to the same services in Wales.

If you're tempted to thank the Lord you're Welsh when you wake up - keep checking the slides. Because the thrust of the IFS' message is that over the next few years, the 'downward pressures' on the economy will continue, the pace of cuts is going to pick up and suddenly, the fear in county halls the length and breadth of Wales of cutting in 'sensitive areas' will - and here's a well-chosen word - 'diminish'.

The most benign of scenarios has local authorities spending less on each and every one of us in 2020-21 than they are spending now.

What if the Welsh government decides it can no longer take the hits and the headlines over the Welsh NHS and starts to protect spending on health services? Well, then prepare for "a striking effect" on local government. As the man from the IFS spelled out the figures, I looked around the room full of council chiefs. They went from holding their heads in their hands to peeping at the slides on the screen through their fingers.

What were the conclusions?

If you're Unison, the conclusion is straightforward: those same council chiefs must resist the cuts.

If you're the IFS, it's that so far, the Welsh government has avoided hitting the poorest areas of Wales as hard as they've been hit in England but what the figures show is that cuts far bigger than those imposed so far in Wales are deliverable. Now is the time to find out from councils in England how they're doing it, how not to do it and what scope there is for mitigating cuts by charging for services we always thought would be free.

If you're a thoughtful Chief Executive, your conclusion is that local authorities can't afford to think in terms of simply cutting a bit more here, there and everywhere. It's time to think about collective solutions, to go with the hard evidence, to be hard headed, not soft hearted.

If you're one of the delegates struggling to focus on anything other than the news that the worst is yet to come, you concluded - with a wan smile - that before the afternoon session, it might be wise to ask those present to leave their ties and shoe laces outside.