POLITICS FILE: Speed bumps on the road to fewer councils?
1:41pm Wednesday 22nd January 2014 in News
A roadmap for the future of Gwent’s councils was laid out this week – we take a look at some of speed bumps that could be found along the way.
AT THE start of this week Sir Paul Williams delivered a hotly-anticipated report on the future of local government in Wales.
But could be many difficulties in bringing authorities together – and with big differences in council tax, it is unclear if Gwent taxpayers would face rises in their bills.
Meanwhile there would be political implications over how councillors are divvied out in among the authorities.
On Monday the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery recommended that Monmouthshire and Newport merge into one authority, with Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen and Caerphilly forming a Valleys council.
In total the body made 62 suggestions about public services which are now sat with the Welsh Government awaiting response.
But it was the proposals for local government that have attracted the most attention from the media.
Once it comes to setting up the new councils, officers and elected members would have a number of differences to iron out.
In Newport a band D property incurs £854.89 in council tax – but in Monmouthshire the same type of property may pay £1003.69.
Blaenau Gwent band D’s rate stands at £1,310, compared to £1,007.88 in Torfaen and just £918.84 in Caerphilly.
Currently each council is undergoing a separate budget process and will once again set a different council tax rate.
Meanwhile the newly merged authorities could lead to a change in the political dynamics of Gwent.
If Newport and Monmouthshire were merged now, keeping its current number of councillors, Labour would have a slight majority of three.
There would be 48 ruling members to 29 Tories, four Lib Dems and 12 others.
The new Gwent Valleys authority area is already Labour dominated in the Assembly and in Westminster – it would now have 113 Labour councillors versus 46 Tories, independents and Plaid councillors.
However the commission says it thinks Wales has too many councillors and that the proposals could lead to fewer councillors.
It would be up to the Welsh Government and the Boundary Commission to decide how many councillors are left after the number of authorities in Wales are reduced.
Every authority in Wales is also having to make big cost savings, and each is executing the process its own way. Every cut or change in the way services are delivered could result in differences in how services are provided in each area.
For instance, a leisure trust is proposed to take over leisure services in Newport – but not in Monmouthshire.
One other example of where pegged-to-merge councils differ is housing in the Valleys.
Over the years all but one of the authorities in Gwent have given their council housing stock to housing associations. So while Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen’s housing has been handed over to social landlords, Caerphilly’s remains in the hands of the council.
Some authorities also have collaboration arrangements that don’t fit into the proposed make-up. Monmouthshire and Torfaen co-operate on IT through the Shared Resource Service, and the two councils are set to merge their homelessness services.
The Welsh Government website now lists each consultation response that the commission received – showing that calls from the Torfaen Constituency Labour Party to retain Torfaen failed to gain traction.
The group had argued that “this is not the ideal time to be considering a re-organisation of local government”.
“Not only will local government re-organisation have a large up-front cost in terms of achieving the re-organisation, it will also divert leadership and officer time and energy away from maintaining frontline public services in the next decade,” the group said.
The constituency party recognised the need for collaboration, but called for a merger with Monmouthshire and Blaenau Gwent, or failing that a new Gwent regional authority if the commission was persuaded for the case for change.
Blaenau Gwent Labour MP Nick Smith also told the commission that any public service shake-up should aim to support “all of the boroughs of Wales” and shouldn’t centralise services in already strong areas.
“Thousands of residents in Blaenau Gwent and beyond must be supported as best as possible, not written off en masse by a reshuffle of the pack,” he said.
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