THE POLITICS FILE: Condensing councils on cards as change is afoot
LEADING ROLE? Newport Civic Centre could be the hub for a new local authority in Gwent says city council leader Bob Bright
A GWENT council leader has called for fewer councils in Wales amid a growing debate about whether our system of local government works.
THE leader of Newport council has come out on the side of growing calls for there to be fewer councils in Wales.
Bob Bright says Newport could take a leading role in a new local government set-up, and says there should be a rational approach to local government in Wales.
His voice is the latest in a growing debate on whether the nation’s system of local government is fit for purpose – but leaders in Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen have argued against starting again.
There are concerns that in the current financial climate services such as education and social services are stretched and fragmented over Wales’ 22 local authorities.
But despite calls from opposition parties for some kind of reorganisation, Welsh Government appears to have little appetite to reform the councils themselves, instead encouraging collaboration between them.
The leader of Newport council, Bob Bright, said he believes there needs to be a rational approach to local government in Wales and “would support a reduction in the number of councils”.
He said: “I believe that Newport, because of both its geographical position and being at the forefront of developing new ways of working, would be ideally placed to play a strategic and leading role in any new design for local government.”
However, he also said there are clear benefits to collaborative working and we are already driving forward changes in key areas such as education and social services.
“The outcomes of projects such as the Education Achievement Service and the Gwent Frailty Project are sure to inform the longer-term plans of how we deliver the best services possible across Wales.”
But leaders at two Gwent Valleys authorities have urged caution.
Hedley McCarthy, leader of Blaenau Gwent Council, said he disagreed with the idea Wales should have only seven authorities.
“What people should understand is that Wales is a small country. It’s made up of small communities,” he said.
“We can’t be too remote from where the decisions are taken.
“When there’s been big county councils what’s tended to happen is that everything drains to the South, everything goes to Newport and Cardiff.”
He said Blaenau Gwent was one of the most proactive authorities in terms of collaboration – working with Newport on education, Caerphilly on social services and Merthyr Tydfil elsewhere.
Torfaen council leader Cllr Bob Wellington said with the current and predicted budget cuts facing public services in Wales “change is inevitable”. But he said he couldn’t call for a wholesale reorganisation of local government, and tearing up the manual was not the only option.
He said: “The last reorganisation took five years to complete and the period was marked by great disruption and a significant lull in activity.”
It was in 1996 that Welsh local authorities were last shaken up, when the nation’s county councils were replaced by a system of 22 unitary authorities.
Particular criticism of councils has come from the Welsh education minister, Leighton Andrews, who has repeatedly said he would never have invented 22 local education authorities and believes the system has contributed to the fall in educational performance in Wales.
A Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) spokesman said the call for a reorganisation is not currently supported by the WLGA or the vast majority of councils across Wales.
“The last reorganisation in Wales started in 1991 and finished in 1996 and was hugely time-consuming, costly and subject to significant political controversy,” he said.
“There undoubtedly will be major mergers of functions across the 22 authorities, not least in terms of education and social care, but the old-style ‘big bang’ approach to reorganisation is not required at this time.”
Carl Sargeant, who is responsible for councils as minister for local government, is aware of the debate, according to a Welsh Government spokesman.
“However, our top priorities and those of the people of Wales are the services provided. It is important that all existing authorities collaborate with each other to deliver those services as effectively and efficiently as possible.”