EDITOR'S CHAIR: Will the shake-up of Welsh councils actually happen?
10:05am Thursday 30th January 2014 in News
FIRST Minister Carwyn Jones is quick to tell anyone who will listen that no-one in Wales supports retaining the status quo when it comes to the number of councils in Wales.
It appears that his own party is doing the least listening.
Last week the much-anticipated Williams Report recommended cutting local authorities from 22 to as few as ten, and proposed merging exisiting councils to achieve the reduction.
In Gwent that would mean Newport merging with Monmouthshire; while Torfaen, Blaenau Gwent and Caerphilly would become one council.
The report also proposed that basic agreements for mergers should be in place by Easter.
Not a chance.
Mr Jones is already facing considerable dissent from within his own party. That is unsurprising, given that the proposed reorganisation would lead to a cull of Labour councillors.
Councils themselves are voicing concerns about the proposals - mainly in private but increasingly in public.
The cost of reorganisation will be £100 million according to Williams and double that according to unions and the organisation that represents Welsh councils.
And this comes at a time when councils are hacking away at their budgets while trying to protect front-line services.
As local authority chiefs wrestle with the toughest set of economic circumstances in living memory, are they really expected to keep all those balls in the air and focus on reorganisation at the same time?
Labour MPs Chris Evans (Islwyn) and Paul Murphy (Torfaen) have already voiced their concerns over cost.
And this week their party colleague AM Lynne Neagle (Torfaen) suggested that explaining to someone whose meals on wheels service was being scrapped that a shed-load of money was available to create new councils would be a difficult job.
The savings may well outweigh the costs in a relatively short period of time but that is a tough argument to present to people campaigning against library and leisure centre closures.
The reality is that Welsh local government reorganisation in 1996 was fundamentally flawed. The move from a two-tier system of county and borough councils to unitary authorities was supposed to devolve power and accountability to a local level.
But the result was the creation of too many councils, some of which are simply too small to do everything they are expected to do.
What those buried deepest in this debate - largely politicians, civil servants, academics and - yes - journalists - need to remember is that the vast majority of people simply do not care about it.
I've worked in areas that have two-tier and unitary systems. People do not differentiate between the two - they simply refer to 'the council' irrespective of the system of local government.
All they care about is whether their bins are emptied on time, whether the streets are clean, whether their children's schools are up to standard.
In other words, they want to know whether they are getting value for money in return for their council tax.
If anybody at the heart of this reorganisation debate really thinks it is important to average families then they need to get out more.
The idea of there being some kind of reorganisation process under way by Easter is simply ludicrous. It will not happen because there are too many people and too many organisations with vested interests involved in the debate.
Have we got too many councils in Wales? Undoubtedly.
Is bashing together a few neighbouring authorities the best way to cut numbers? Probably not. While I could see the sense in having a council that covered, for instance, the M4 corridor of Newport, Cwmbran, Caldicot and Chepstow, the idea of a council based in Newport having responsibility for somewhere like Abergavenny seems bonkers.
But the alternative would involved boundary changes and even more cost.
Will the recommendations of the Williams Report be actioned? Despite what is being said at Welsh Government level I have my doubts.
These proposals are probably the right idea but at entirely the wrong time.
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