A WELSH Government report into the future of local government in Wales has suggested that key services will be delivered by multi-council consortia while the number of local authorities in Wales will be halved.
The Commission, chaired by Sir Paul Williams, a non-executive director of Natural Resources Wales, was set up by First Minister Carwyn Jones in April 2013. At the time, the Welsh Government said the panel would “look hard, honestly and objectively at ways public services are delivered”.
The Commission’s report has already been delayed from the end of the last calendar year, when a special amendment had to be placed before the Senedd to extend its remit, and it is now due to present its findings at the end of January.
The plans to cut the number of Welsh councils will hardly be a surprise. As reported in Pembrokeshire’s Best Magazine in May of last year and The Pembrokeshire Herald in October, senior figures in the Welsh Government regard the current set-up of 22 local authorities delivering services as unsustainable.
In October 2013, the First Minister said:
“There is almost no one now who says that the current structure of 22 local authorities is the right one for Wales. “No one says it.”
The plans tie in with other Welsh Government plans to strip out the organisation of education from the responsibilities of individual authorities, replacing it with a system of multi-council or multi-provider consortia. The Welsh Government is widely reported as despairing of the ability of local authorities to deliver positive education outcomes, with five authorities, including Pembrokeshire, having had some form of Welsh Government intervention in the last two years.
If Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire Councils merged, an upward readjustment in Pembrokeshire’s Council Tax bills would almost certainly be necessary, the average bill in the neighbouring authority area being around £200 higher than that in Pembrokeshire. The Welsh Local Government Association claimed in its submission to the Commission that plans to cut local authorities would cost 15,000 jobs and cost anything up to £400m in 2016/17, the earliest point at which reorganisation could take place.
A particular difficulty the Welsh Government faces is that many of the smallest authorities are located in the South Wales Valleys, from which the Labour administration draws much of its support in the Senedd. Responding to the leaked content of the report, Pembrokeshire County Council leader Jamie Adams told The Pembrokeshire Herald:
“Assuming the speculation regarding the Commission’s recommendation is correct, it comes as no surprise to me that some form of local government reorganisation has been suggested.
“The majority of senior Assembly Members have been inclined towards local government reorganisation for some time. Such a move would also be consistent with the drift towards centralisation that we have started to see with other public services in Wales.
“In my view, retaining local democratic representation is of the utmost importance. Decisions about Pembrokeshire should be taken in Pembrokeshire.
“Furthermore, given that we currently charge, by some margin, the lowest Council Tax in Wales, any merger with another local authority is likely to result in a significant increase in the level of Council Tax Pembrokeshire residents would be expected to pay.”