LAST week Leighton Andrews, Public Services Minister for Wales, published the Welsh Government’s preferred plans for redrawing the map of local government in Wales. The plans unveiled had been well trailed and boil down to recreating the large unitary authorities that were part of the Welsh civic and political landscape for 22 years up to 1996.
In Wales’ fiercely independent west, the vision presented by the Welsh Government means recreating Dyfed. It appears, however, that the Welsh Government faces not only an uphill battle to get its reorganisation plans accepted by grassroots councillors, but also a stiff challenge to the prospect of even getting them on the statute book at all.
Council l eaders speak out
The issue highlighted by all of West Wales’ council leaders is that of cost and the threat to local accountability.
Cllr Ellen ap Gwynn, Leader of Ceredigion County Council, said: “Ceredigion County Council has previously voted unanimously against any merger proposals; this stance remains unchanged. Merging with any other authority would weaken local accountability, and so it is in the county’s citizens’ best interests to retain the sovereignty of Ceredigion. As the WLGA has recommended, local accountability would be best served by employing a combined authority model, which would consist of Ceredigion, Powys and Carmarthenshire cooperating on common strategic matters – an arrangement which would also negate any democratic deficit. Ceredigion remains committed to cooperate with other Councils to share resources and expertise in order to secure the most efficient and effective services possible. Bearing in mind that the Council has already made savings of £25 million over the past three years and needs to make similar savings over the next three years, concentrating on these proposals does not offer any benefits for the people of the county. It would be much better to see the estimated £268m cost of these proposals being spent on local services, rather than taking an empty, expensive step back in time.”
In a press statement last week, Cllr Emlyn Dole, Leader of Carmarthenshire, offered a more poetic view of the situation: “We have in Carmarthenshire a distinctiveness in culture, language and heritage – these are precious, and ours to retain and nurture. To that end, I firmly believe that Carmarthenshire should stand alone as a local authority in any future reorganisation of local government. One of my last acts as leader of the opposition on Carmarthenshire County Council, before becoming Leader, was to put down a motion on notice making this very point. I also put to council that maintaining our status as a county and an area authority offers us the best opportunity to safeguard and improve our services, and enables us to continue with the regeneration of our local economy. I was pleased to see cross party support, with all members – bar one – giving their full support. Having said that, I am not an inflexible Leader, and I will listen to all arguments for and against – indeed I do merit regional working arrangements.”
Cllr Jamie Adams, Leader of Pembrokeshire, was equally keen on retaining the distinctiveness of his county: “Seeing the maps for the first time, it is difficult to comment without some explanation of the rationale behind it. My position has always been: will the change improve the services we deliver to the public while at the same time reducing costs? If it doesn’t tick those two boxes, I think it is right to question the validity of this exercise. Apart from the obvious loss of local decision-making and accountability, I also have concerns about the real damage reorganisation could do to a very successful brand. I am referring to the Pembrokeshire name which is instantly recognisable to those living far outside our County and even beyond Wales. A large number of local businesses in tourism, agriculture, food and energy depend on, and identify strongly, with brand Pembrokeshire for their livelihood. I fear they will inevitably suffer if amalgamation goes ahead and in these trying times I believe it would be foolish to gamble with the health of our local economy.”
Big is beautiful ,but not always
There is no doubt that bigger authorities are better able to administer some key local government services. Strategic planning and transport, education and social services all demand scale. Size can bring vision, specialist expertise and economy and flexibility in the use of resources. For these services, big is beautiful and a reduction in the number of local authorities is right. It might even be that 8 or 9 authorities are too many, particularly in respect of strategic planning and transport.
But sometimes small is beautiful as well. Local authorities ought to be more than just the deliverers of services, and councils that don’t obviously connect with the places they serve struggle to be civic leaders and place-makers. The performance of Wales’ biggest councils also shows that big isn’t necessarily better.
Despite the clarion calls of the city-region lobby, most of Wales consists of small towns and villages, and we ignore the governance and provision of services in these communities at our peril. It remains to be seen if the proposed role for town and community councils will fill this gap.
Plaid Cymru has tapped into this picture with its own proposals for reorganisation. Plaid’s response is to create regional consortia to deliver the services identified above, while retaining a direct link with the local electorate by retaining other services at the existing county level. In a debate in the Senedd, Carwyn Jones di smi s sed this plan as ‘creating seven new quangos’, but Plaid’s policy seems to bear remarkable similarities to that favoured by the Welsh Local Government Association.
Cllr Bob Wellington CBE, Labour leader of Torfaen and head of the WLGA, says: “The sustainability of authorities in Wales is in question over the next three years and it is time to examine all options for reforming public services across the board. This means looking at greater integration of health and social care, freeing up authorities from Government bureaucracy and regulation and also empowering local communities through their councils.”
As Mike Hedges AM, presciently wrote in a paper for the Bevan Foundation: ‘The last 40 years have seen two reorganisations, the creation of the National Assembly for Wales and services such as water, post-16 education and Magistrates’ courts being taken out of local authority control. After almost a hundred years with a stable structure, Local government in Wales was reorganised into county and district Councils in 1974 and further reorganised into 22 unitary authorities in 1996. If we continue changing local government structures every 22 years then we are due an Act in 2016 and a new structure in place by 2018’.
The case for reform
Not all visions of reorganisation are as apocalyptic as those offered by local government leaders. Wales Politico carries an article which cites two unnamed senior council officials as accepting that the need and case for reorganisation is overwhelming. The article quotes a South Wales officer as saying: “Everyone in local government knows it is the correct decision. But obviously we can’t say that publicly, because so many jobs will go – including our own.”
Writing in Click on Wales, Geraint Talfarn Davies goes as far to say that: “Fewer larger counties should entail a rejuvenation of this bottom tier, in ways that would encourage really local action. It has been the missing dimension in the debate. Those who want to see real local engagement should opt for fewer councils at the top and genuinely local entities at the very bottom, even more local than the existing councils. The message from a public that seems increasingly more concerned by quality of delivery than by democratic form is, for God’s sake get on with it, do it better, get results.”
Describing the progress of the reforms as ‘snail-paced’ and ‘ham-fisted’, The Daily Wales observed: ‘The reality is that just as turkeys will never vote for Christmas, local authority leaders will never vote for their own abolition’.
Whatever the future holds for Welsh local government, it seems that – with no hope of getting legislation through before 2016’s Assembly elections – the debate is going to run and run.
The question is, who will blink first?
Communities and staff thanked for flood support
COMMUNITIES and staff have been thanked for their work during the Storm Callum Floods. The October floods caused great damage to homes, businesses, roads and bridges in the south of Ceredigion. The floods were the biggest flood event in the last 31 years in Ceredigion.
During the flooding, the council supported the emergency services to prioritise the saving of lives. This included making sure that roads and bridges made dangerous by floodwater were closed. The council’s emergency response and recovery procedures were carried out during the event. Multi-agency emergency procedures were also carried out.
Ceredigion County Council Chief Executive, Mr Eifion Evans said, “Council staff went above and beyond their duties over the weekend of the floods. I saw their efforts with my own eyes; staff who weren’t on duty were offering to come in to help our residents. We had to send some staff home as they wanted to work longer than the 12 hour maximum that staff are allowed to work in one shift.
I have also been impressed by the huge efforts made by communities to help each other during, and in the aftermath of the flooding.”
After water levels dropped, council staff from Community Wellbeing, Housing and Highways Teams immediately went to the affected areas to offer practical support and advice. They also saw the extent of the damage that had been caused.
Everyone who has been in touch with the council has been offered help with housing, including being offered emergency temporary accommodation where needed. The Housing Team have worked with local landlords and B&B owners to provide additional accommodation, and to provide ongoing support for people who have been affected by the flood.
The Community Wellbeing Team have also provided advice and specialist equipment to residents to help to begin to dry out their homes. This support is ongoing.
The council organised drop-in sessions in Lampeter, Newcastle Emlyn, Llandysul and Llechryd. The sessions were attended by many organisations that can offer support and advice. The sessions gave residents the chance to ask the organisations any questions they had about recovering from the flood.
The Highways Team have arranged a free service to pick-up and dispose of flood damaged materials and have put skips in local household waste sites for flood damaged possessions. The team also cleared 100 tons of earth from the B4459 near Capel Dewi after a landslide covered the road. The Highways Team also repaired damaged roads and bridges.
Mr Evans continued, “The council is dedicated to helping our residents recover from the devastating effects of the recent floods. I understand that the impact is still very raw for people who have been affected, especially those who have been made homeless. I want to reassure every resident that our committed staff are working hard to help you. Despite severe pressure on council budgets, we will do everything in our power to continue to offer practical help to residents.”
A flood recovery group has met regularly to look at how the Council can target help in the most effective way. A further flood newsletter will be published in the near future. The Council will also be hosting flood advice surgeries and building on the work of developing emergency support groups for flooding.
More information about the help the council can offer is available on the website on www.ceredigion.gov.uk/stormcallumfloods
Training company enjoy successful open evening
HYFFORDDIANT CEREDIGION TRAINING (HCT) enjoyed a successful open evening on November 7 as it opened its doors to the public.
Opening HCT’s doors gave people the opportunity to see the fantastic range of training opportunities available for them. This included opportunities for young people who are interested in seeing what apprenticeships HCT has to offer.
Mark Gleeson, Manager for Post 14 Vocational Learning said, “It is important that HCT holds open evenings to showcase different learning opportunities that are available to all learners. HCT offers a large number of apprenticeships which ensures that the next generation of skilled workforce is being trained and employed by local companies. This is very important to the economy of Ceredigion.”
There was an opportunity to have a tour of the building, to speak to tutors, to have a look at the workshops, and to see trainees and apprentices in action. This gave a flavour of the kind of work that is done daily at the training centre.
Traineeships and apprenticeships, but also evening classes, are taught at HCT, as Councillor Catrin Miles, Cabinet Member for Learning Service and Lifelong Learning explains, “If studying towards a full qualification in a given trade is not what you are after, but you want to gain some of the basic skills in the various routes HCT specialises in, why not join an evening class? The next round of evening courses are beginning now. So, what are you waiting for? Contact HCT to see what it has to offer you.”
Evening classes run for six weeks and HCT offers these 2-3 times per year. HCT offers a range of vocational courses for people of all ages, including Hairdressing, Childcare, Business Administration, Information Technology, Carpentry, Plumbing, Electrics, Blacksmithing, Agriculture, Motor Mechanics and Welding.
For more information, find ‘Hyfforddiant Ceredigion Training’ on Facebook, or visit the website, http://www.ceredigion.gov.uk/public-it/hct/index.html
Vandalism at coastguard lookout point
POLICE are investigating vandalism at the old coastguard lookout point at Bird’s Rock.
A council spokesperson said: “We’re very sad to see vandalism to the old coastguard look out at Bird’s Rock on the coastal path a mile to the west of New Quay last week.
“All five windows was smashed – some even had their wooden frames ripped out.”
Melanie Heath, Ceredigion County Council’s Marine Protected Area Officer, added: “This act of vandalism is so distressing to see. The look-out was restored thanks to a special grant from the Crown Estate. It is used by our Dolphin and Porpoise Watch volunteers throughout the monitoring season. It is also a special place for many local people and visitors alike to sit for a while and take in the spectacular views of Cardigan Bay.”
If anyone has any information, contact Heddlu Dyfed Powys Police on 101
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