Council merger clarity call as deadline approaches

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Media captionPublic Services Minister Leighton Andrews has suggested there could be as few as six councils

Local councils have called for clarity on how many authorities the Welsh government wants and how a proposed merger shake-up will be paid for.

The call came as a deadline of Friday midnight for the 22 authorities to suggest voluntary mergers approached.

Ministers want to cut the number of councils to between 10 and 12, urging councils to name preferred partners.

But the councils said a suggestion that the ultimate target could be as few as six has created ambiguity.

In January, the Williams Commission recommended the 22 county councils - last reorganised two decades ago - be cut to as few as 10.

But Public Services Minister Leighton Andrews has suggested there could be as few as six.

Supporters of mergers claim it will make local government more effective and efficient.

The Welsh Local Government Association said after a meeting on Friday that while six of the 22 authorities had agreed on a merger plan, others were prepared to merge after more consideration while some preferred to stand alone.

'Shared vision'

The WLGA confirmed the names of the six councils which had already agreed merger plans:

  • Conwy and Denbighshire
  • Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend
  • Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen
Image caption The 12 mergers recommended by the Williams Commission - and whether each council is in favour or not

Of those, just one pairing - Conwy and Denbighshire - was what the Williams Commission recommended. The other councils said they would prefer to work with authorities other than those recommended by the commission.

Swansea council leader Rob Stewart said his authority may be willing to merge with Neath Port Talbot but was still considering its options and may wish to stand alone.

Anglesey, Caerphilly, Ceredigion, Monmouthshire, Newport and Wrexham have all said they would prefer not to merge.

'Fit for purpose'

The councils asked ministers to consider a range of issues before taking the next steps:

  • A "shared vision" needed for the future role of local councils
  • Clarity needed on the target number of local authorities to be created from mergers
  • Who will pay the costs of reorganisation
  • How the general public and council workers will be involved in the debate

WLGA leader Bob Wellington, who also leads Torfaen council, said: "The whole debate on the future of local government in Wales needs to move forward on the principle of open, constructive and respectful engagement.

"In terms of the forthcoming White Paper, local government should be involved in devising a shared vision of the future for public services in Wales.

"We need a settled and lasting outcome that provides a structure fit for purpose now and into the future.

"The challenges ahead are profound. Local public services are in crisis and now more than ever strategic intent and partnership is required across all tiers of elected government in Wales."

Local government consultant Jeff Jones, the former leader of Bridgend council, said he does not think the mergers are the solution to the current problems facing councils.

"If you're developing a local government system fit for the 21st Century you should have a blank piece of paper and ask what should it deliver and have structures that deliver that," he said.

"But [the councils] are all hamstrung by the fact they were told that any new system had to conform to existing health board and police force areas.

"Most authorities are saying voluntary mergers are not the way to go forward.

"Wales has far too many councils. You look at Birmingham - that has a similar population to Wales and it has just one council.

"I'm in agreement with Leighton Andrews when he suggested there should be six councils. I say five but I'd be happy with six."

He said all of the councils which were happy to merge were "weak authorities" which should not be paired together.

"If anyone actually approves these mergers, they're just showing they're not interested in good governance," he added.

The commission estimated the shake-up could save £60m to £80m per year after an upfront £100m cost, while an accountants' report for the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) said it could cost up to £268m but eventually save £65m a year.

Mr Andrews has said all merger suggestions would be considered.

However, the suggested Bridgend/Vale of Glamorgan partnership contravenes the recommendation that mergers do not cross the boundaries of health boards.

The Welsh government said it planned to respond to any expressions of interest on mergers by 5 January.

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