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Will local councils merge?

• ‘No way’ says CeredigionPembs-CC
• ‘Maybe’ says Pembrokeshire

IN RESPONSE to a Welsh government consultation, the councillors voted to keep Ceredigion Council as a distinct Local Authority body to be able to ensure local accountability and democracy. First Minister Carwyn Jones supports The Williams Commission which earlier this year said the number of Welsh councils should be cut. This involves replacing the 22 current Welsh authorities with 12. The Welsh Government’s White Paper was published by then Local Government Minister Lesley Griffiths in July. This was basically the beginning of the legal process plotting how everything will happen which then paved the way mergers of councils willing to do so voluntarily.

October 1 is closing date for responses. Ceredigion Council Leader Ellen ap Gwyn has made it clear that the authority are sending a clear message to the government: “Merging with any other authority would weaken local accountability. Enlarging wards and reducing democratic representation will militate against good local delivery of bilingual services in a rural area. There is no cultural or linguistic affinity with with the proposed enlarged local authority area.” Ceredigion Council are among many but is the most recent authority to reject a voluntary merger. Newport has also voted against saying they do not want to merge with Monmouthshire whilst Wrexham has shown willing to join with Flintshire.

Conwy and Denbighshire are still evaluating their options. It has been said by Conwy’s Deputy Leader Ronnie Hughes that the merger would give the authority more control over its future than if it waited and was forced into the merge in two years time. Although Leighton Andrews, minister of public services has said that the Welsh Government will support councils with early mergers, including using ‘existing funding streams’ and identifying ‘appropriate financial resources’, Caerphilly has rejected to merge with Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen whilst Anglesey has similarly objected to merging with Gwynedd. In light of the recent statements by the Public Services Minister, the Leader of Pembrokeshire County Council, Councillor Jamie Adams, has announced his intention to commence formal discussions regarding the future of local government in Pembrokeshire.

“It is now clear that the Welsh Government intend to legislate to force reorganisation upon us” he said. “While I do not agree that local government reorganisation is necessary, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that it is likely to happen. “With this in mind, I intend to establish a cross-party working group of Councillors to consider the merits of a voluntary merger with Ceredigion County Council.

“I understand that Ceredigion Councillors are opposed to a merger, and I respect their point of view. However, I do not think this is an issue that we can, or should, ignore. “We have spent too long recently looking in at ourselves. It is high time that we raised our heads and started to plan for what’s coming down the track towards us.” While Ceredigion has rejected a council merger with Pembrokeshire, it seems that Welsh Minister for Public Services Leighton Andrews is prepared to force through change in the teeth of resistance from Wales’ local government sector. It seems as though Council Leader Jamie Adams has taken a view of the future and decided to argue Pembrokeshire’s case for independence in local government less forcefully than before.

Speaking to The Herald after Monday’s Corporate Governance Committee, Cllr Mike James told us that Mr Andrews told representatives at a recent meeting of the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) that ‘they hadn’t seen nothing yet.’ Last week, Leighton Andrews issued a press release saying: “We cannot continue to operate with 22 local authorities. There will be change, voluntary or not, and I am offering a unique opportunity to those who are willing. I want local authorities themselves to make fundamental and lasting change to create modern and effective Local Government in Wales.

I hope they seize this opportunity since those who agree to merge voluntarily will determine their own future and will not face elections until May 2018.” The promise of initiating new primary legislation to delay Council elections for those authorities willing to merge might be a significant incentive for existing councillors to extend a stay in local government that could otherwise be curtailed by the electorate a year earlier. Bribing councillors to do as the Welsh Government wishes, ahead of the completion of the work of a supposedly independent and unbiased consultation, raises questions about the integrity of the Welsh Government’s whole approach to the question of how to reorganize Welsh local democracy.

In response to Leighton Andrews’ statement, a vote of Ceredigion County Council unanimously rejected calls to merge its operations with Pembrokeshire. Ceredigion Council Leader Ellen ap Gwyn said: “A business case does not exist to support a merger between Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire. Everyone agreed that the proposal does not make geographical sense and grave concern was expressed regarding the cultural and linguistic difference between the two counties,” she added. The council is the latest authority to reject a voluntary merger.

Newport has also said it does not want to merge with Monmouthshire while Wrexham has signalled it is unwilling to join with Flintshire Striking a more conciliatory note than hitherto used in his public statements, Council Leader Jamie Adams said: In light of the recent statements by the Public Services Minister, the Leader of Pembrokeshire County Council, Councillor Jamie Adams, has announced his intention to commence formal discussions regarding the future of local government in Pembrokeshire. Ahead of releasing the statement to the press, he told Monday’s Corporate Governance Committee: “It is now clear that Welsh Government intend to legislate to force reorganisation upon us” he said.

“While I do not agree that local government reorganisation is necessary, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that it is likely to happen. With this in mind, I intend to establish a crossparty working group of Councillors to consider the merits of a voluntary merger with Ceredigion County Council. I understand that Ceredigion Councillors are opposed to a merger, and I respect their point of view. However, I do not think this is an issue that we can, or should, ignore. We have spent too long recently looking in at ourselves. It is high time that we raised our heads and started to plan for what’s coming down the track towards us.” Whether Jamie Adams will be able to deliver consensus across his increasingly bitterly divided council is likely to be a major test of his and his party’s resolve in the face of widespread public support for Pembrokeshire’s autonomy.

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Dayne Stone

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