"Cut to the bone".

"Under huge pressure"

"At tipping point".

They are all phrases which were all used to describe the state of Wales' councils before March 2020. And then the pandemic hit.

Overnight the revenue on which councils rely, from things like parking, tourism, museums or music venues stopped and the costs of the services they needed to provide skyrocketed.

The shops and hospitality venues which pay business rates closed their doors, many, like Debenhams, never to reopen, those who needed help to pay their council tax increased.

The statutory services councils have to offer remained obligatory, and probably more crucial than ever before, and the emergency plans they need in place for things like flooding still had to be up to date.

Read more:Covid and the future: How experts now think the pandemic will affect us next year and beyond

But the older and sick people still needed care in their homes, and still needed food delivering to their door. Schools still needed to teach. The children who only get a hot meal because they are at school still needed that food. The museums and libraries still had valuable stock to protect. The pandemic changed the regulations pubs, taxis and venues had to adhere to - which councils enforce - often dramatically and at short notice.

And, on top of providing all the services they always have, there were new demands. How do you ensure all bins still get emptied when you need three refuse collectors to socially distance inside a lorry cab? How do you get meals or vouchers to every child who needed them? How can social care be delivered in private homes when the advice was to stay apart? The list went on.

Debenhams is one of the large stores which has closed for good during the pandemic

Councils are the biggest employers in their areas, so responding to all those and more had to be done while getting thousands of staff set up to work remotely.

Not one of Wales' 22 councils will have held a meeting in the last 11 years where money - and the lack of it - has not come up.

Hundreds of millions of pounds of funding has been taken from councils, who in turn have cut or even closed services, raised prices, hiked council tax.

Speaking to council leaders, there is praise for the speed at which Welsh Government made money available to not only plug the revenue gap but the extra costs of dealing with the pandemic. Cardiff council's leader Huw Thomas said: "Looking back money never felt like a consideration".

Rhondda Cynon Taf is the third largest council in Wales with almost 250,000 living in its boundaries. Its leader, Andrew Morgan, said the funding situation at the moment is stable, but only due to the emergency grants from Welsh Government.

Cllr Morgan, who is also head of the Welsh Local Government Association, said this year councils are looking at needing to raise 5%. something like an extra £220m.

Events like the Santa train at Rhondda Heritage Park is usually a sell-out but this year will operate at around 75% capacity to comply with Covid rules. “Straight away, we know we're going to lose thousands of pounds at Christmas which we would have had coming in," said Cllr Morgan.

It's been almost impossible to bag a ticket for Pontypridd Lido this summer and despite a longer season and huge demand for tickets, will have brought in less money because it too has to operate at a reduced capacity of 70%.

"Every single month we are claiming a few million pounds a month in lost income and we’re also claiming several million of increased costs," said Cllr Morgan.

Rhondda Cynon Taf council leader Andrew Morgan

In Conwy, the 3.5m tourists who normally arrive and use council services like car parks, leisure centres and museums didn't turn up.

The then-leader was Sam Rowlands, now a MS. “Income streams were definitely affected, certainly on the leisure side of things. With car parks nobody was allowed to go anywhere which accounts for millions of pounds a year. Places like Conwy town, Betws y Coed, Llandudno, where 3.5m visitors a year normally come through little old Conway but no one turned up."

In Cardiff, the city's castle normally attracts 250,000 visitors a year paying £15 entry but in the pandemic it was made into a public park.

Cardiff Bus is being kept afloat, the council's leader said, by the Bus Emergency Scheme. “By the time that ends next year, will passenger footfall have returned to normal given lots of people may still be working from home anyway, and you’ve had public service announcements for two years saying don’t go on public transport?" Cllr Thomas asked.

Cardiff council is already seeing the double whammy of supply issues and rising costs hitting their revenue-generating areas.

“We are managing it, but getting supplies of food, certainly deliveries are less frequent so you've got to plan in advance. I've not been briefed to those issues in school supply but council catering functions like delivering meals in City Hall for private events and some of our cafes.

Cardiff council health and wellbeing officer Rob trained to be a forklift driver to help with PPE distribution

“What's maybe not understood is that it's all those people who worked through hell in lockdown one and two who are now still delivering these services now that we are in very common it's back to “normal” they’ve not been sat at home and things aren’t back to normal. Both in terms of the relief of pressure on staff, but the forward pressure on council services, particularly in terms of resources.

"There's a dozen or more areas across the council that are trying to recruit and I'm struggling at the moment. The most obvious ones I guess like social care, adult services, but then HGV drivers but all sorts of agency staff and we’re really struggling to recruit people for school canteen staff, real struggles. And then, tied to that you’ve got surging cost pressures and supply problems."

All authorities have changed the way they work in the last year.

In Cardiff, 300 staff from St David's Hall and from the call centre were working on Test, Trace, Protect. The head of libraries was managing the distribution of PPE across the city.

In RCT, up to 90% of the same pre-pandemic services are being run but from people's homes or from limited space in offices and council staff continue to work at vaccination sites, working in contact tracing on the vaccination booking line, people helping with PCR testing.

"As an average day, anywhere between 100 or 150 or our staff are working on things that prior to Covid we weren’t involved in or weren’t there," says Cllr Morgan.

In Conwy, a dedicated telephone line in place and saw thousands of people call up for help. That was driven by their demographics, which has a particularly high proportion of older people who were often self isolating often on their own.

Mr Rowlands says around 25% of the county's residents live alone so having that phoneline to call to get supplies was essential.

"Councils were agile and quick to respond to needs and that shows what they can do in a time of crisis," he said. That's echoed by Cllr Thomas. He remembers taking the first emergency conference call with the health minister, then Vaughan Gething, while on the A470 en route to north Wales.

Within three days, schools were closed and the question was how free school meals could be delivered. Then the full lockdown followed.

“At pace, we did awesome stuff," he said.

But all the leaders expressed concerns about the future of finances, but also their staff.

Cllr Thomas said: "They've put blood, sweat and tears into their jobs for 18 months keeping the city together and public services running through probably the hardest time since the last war. They're now dealing with a series of new crises in the staffing shortages, the inflationary costs., looming winter pressures and the potential budget ramifications.

"Life for them has is getting harder, not easier having had a very hard time. And I do worry looking at comments from some members of the public who think that we're back to normal I think the lived reality of delivering public services, is very different"

There is a huge personal toll that many are yet to address.

"Some staff are genuinely exhausted, social care staff in particular. I remember vividly one night sitting on my stairs. I just had done I was chatting to one of the she's a senior officer senior manager in social care that we had an outbreak in a home, and we had lost two people one night. The following night we lost three, and then on the Sunday she rang me and she was quite upset and said they’d lost six residents that night," said Cllr Morgan.

The staff were upset, having dealt with so many deaths but their staff in the first lockdown didn’t know how they would be impacted.

“Some of the staff were breaking down in tears and some staff are saying they wanted to go home and she had to be firm to say if you are going to go home because, you know, you don’t want put yourself at risk, I said I understand that but what's gonna happen to these residents, who's gonna feed them whose work after them. And in effect we’ve got nobody and if we can’t look after them, no-one else will.”

Staff from Cardiff Council were reployed from their day jobs during the pandemic - staff pictured distributing PPE supplies

When the headlines were about PPE and running out - RCT never did but did come within 24 hours of running - the reality on the ground was people didn't know if it was actually providing protection.

“We genuinely didn’t know what the outcome on staff would we, and we spoke in that conversation about how to have to prepare ourselves for potentially staff could die, and subsequently we didn't know we lost six staff during Covid," said Cllr Morgan.

Behind the scenes, preparations were being made for things we thankfully have not seen.

In one of those very early meetings Cllr Morgan remembers sitting in Cathays Park with the worst case scenario being described by officials trying to prepare councils for what could be coming, and soon.

"We were talking about potentially deaths on a scale 10 times worse than they have been. We discussed what do we do with the dead, because we wouldn't be able to bury them at keep up with the numbers. We had the UK Government and Welsh Government telling us we needed these plans in place if lockdown didn't come about and didn’t have the impact it did. Things would have been so much worse. We would have never coped.”

Sam Rowlands MS for North Wales was leader of Conwy Council at the start of the pandemic

Councils in Wales get their money from the Welsh Government, who in turn get their money from the UK Government.

Next week when the Chancellor stands in the Commons to deliver the autumn budget and Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) he will set out the UK Government's spending and financial strategy. How much money comes to Wales, will take longer to calculate, and how Welsh Government chooses to spend that money won't be announced until December 21. Then councils have until March, when they set budgets, to see what it means for them.

The value of Welsh Government grants to councils has dropped by £918.5m in 2017-18, compared to 2009-10.

Despite trying to plug that gap through cutting services and upping council tax, councils had £577m less in 2017-8, compared to 2009-10, according to Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre in 2019.

To date, Welsh Government has given £688m to councils through the Hardship Fund.

Cllr Morgan said: "Welsh Government is providing around £30m per month as an average to local government to cover lost income, and increased costs. So one of the big concerns we’ve got is we have been well supported this year and I can't fault them but what’s going to happen in April?"

"If the UK Government isn't going to be doing something similar in England as they suggest may not that means Welsh Government won’t get the one off money they got this year, and therefore we’re saying, we still think there needs to be a Covid emergency fund for next year to help us with budget pressures. We’re lobbying on it but our concern is if there is no extra money, we’ll be on our own."

Welsh Government has already been clear when discussing NHS pay rises, that giving any extra there will mean cuts somewhere else. It's no different for councils. If there is no more money in the pot it's up to councils.

'Most councils' in Wales are said to be 'dealing with a lack of suitably trained and vetted bus drivers for school transport' at the moment and Covid isolations are exacerbating the issue
Councils have reported issues with having enough bus drivers due to the pandemic

"We have to look at so we have to then look at do we cut services, do we reduce the headcount? Do we put prices up to try and get any money in?

"Sometimes you've got to accept putting the prices up actually can be a detriment because you think oh I'll put the price up marginally not have too big of an impact but if there’s a public backlash, you actually can end up losing more money you gained. So, now is a really difficult one.

"I think there's more pressure on the councils now than at any time I've known. So, the financial pressure is huge. The only difference is at present we are being bailed out every month by Welsh Government. Our concern is if these financial pressures continue going to next year, to be quite frank, we’ll be in the sh*t."

However, that grant is only part of the picture. Core funding from the Welsh Government covers between two-thirds and three-quarters of each council's spending. The rest comes from council tax, business rates, fees and money raised from things like council-run services.

Council Tax and Business Rates raise over £2.5bn for local public services in Wales. In Wales, business rates are collected effectively into one large pot and redistributed.

During the pandemic, retail, leisure and hospitality venues were given 100% business rate relief, so until April 2022 they will not pay any business rates.

Two Cardiff council staff who normally work in graffiti removal roles switched to delivery jobs

From that point, there is no future commitment to a relief scheme. It is then it will become clear what the impact has been on venues in those sectors closing who will no longer be contributing to that fund. Ask officials, they will tell you there is a potential for the loss of big shops, like Debenhams or the Arcadia group, will impact the pot but it is still too early to know. A Senedd report last year said it isn't a maybe but "inevitable" that less money will come in and that "this will impact the amount they have available to spend in future years".

Council tax rises have been well documented in recent years. Last year, the rises ranged from 2.65% in Rhondda Cynon Taf to 6.95% in Wrexham.

The average band D council tax for Wales for 2021-22 is £1,731 which has gone up £64 or 3.8% over the past year.

Cllr Morgan said raising council tax is the fallback for councils.

“I think that people have enough going on without being bled dry” but the problem comes if they say you need to put it up 5%, 6% or 7%, then it’s counterproductive because while we may get the money in, UK Government will end up spending more because there'll be more people saying it’s actually not worthwhile me working because I can get council tax relief and all these other things. It's almost like a vicious circle."

Because RCT is a poorer council area, there is limited benefit anyway.

Council staff have been working in testing centres and on the Test, Trace, Protect hotline

“Me hiking up to council tax an extra 1% will generate very little because most of my houses are in Band A, whereas if you're Monmouthsire and you put up council tax 1% and because most of the houses have been D, E and F they get a lot more money.

"Trying to balance your books through council tax is not the way that I just think it's a recipe for disaster, we end up pushing poor people further down the chain."

Add to that the reduction in council tax collection - somewhere between 0.8% to 2.6% across councils - and it's easy to see why balancing the books will be tricky.

So all eyes are on the announcement in the Commons next week.

Cllr Thomas said: "“I think we'll get the mood music from the CSR. It's almost as if you’re back into coming back out of the financial crash scenario again. In broad terms you've got two ways to go. You can cut and try and get public spending down or you grow your way out of the economy.

“If where we get back to after the CSR is UK Government saying we’ve spent all the money it’s time to lock down the public finances again. Well, I think that's a disaster. I really do, particularly in the context of rising costs on so many fronts.

“If staffing is an issue the main way we retain staffing is by increasing public sector pay and it doesn't feel like there’s a big appetite from the government to do that either. And then if we are having to make cuts and diverting the attention of senior officers who've been managing this crisis to suddenly driving out tens of millions pounds with a savings reorganisation. I think that, in turn, not only is that difficult to do but that destabilises the structure of the organisation as well."

“There is no fat," he said.

However, there are some brighter spots.

Cllr Rowlands accepts all the risks to finances, but says this crisis has shown what councils can do. "There's also opportunity then because councils have shown what they can deliver," he said.

"I’m not underestimating the challenge. I held the finance portfolio in my council for four years, and we had to raise council tax significantly to deliver services. That was really uncomfortable, especially in one year raising it 9.6%. If we hadn’t done that then the council would have been stuck financially.

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"It’s definitely a massive challenge but councils can rise to the challenge. Council officers are the ones doing the doing and work really hard and are really creative about delivering services in different ways. But it’s that local democracy and that local connection."

Cllr Thomas says the pandemic showed the "the real value of local services".

The UK Government spending review is on October 27. Welsh Government said it will publish its budget for 2022-23 in December and will "continue to work closely with our partners in local government and recognise the vital importance of the services they provide".

Everyone has their own pandemic story, and that's no different for the people making the decisions on behalf of thousands of others.

The current climate led Cllr Morgan to consider restanding in next year's council election.

"I was considering not standing simply because of the amount of pressure we're under and if we were back into another period of austerity, I just wouldn't want to be there. I just think that for the staff and to see the service users, people are struggling when they ask you help with a foodbank, I think politics is busted."

He too had the quandary about how to prepare his family knowing what he knew was predicted to come. At one point he filled his parents’ cupboards and freezer knowing they would not be able to leave the house for weeks, if not months and during the pandemic. Cllr Morgan himself lost his auntie, who lives in a residential home yards from his Rhondda home, in Christmas week.

Her brother and his wife then caught covid a week to the day she died. He died within three days and she died 24 hours after.

Within nine days he lost two aunties and an uncle to Covid, and due to restrictions, couldn’t comfort his mother at the local funeral, but not attend the other two as they lived in London.

“That’s the only time it’s really brought it home and at the same time you’re meant to carry it on making those decisions”.

The lasting impact on councils isn't known, nor on its staff but it's clear there will be a financial toll, and the personal ones are still being felt too.