Statement on Local Government Reform
Gareth Bennett AM
Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)
Thanks to the Minister for today’s statement. We seem to find ourselves in a bit of a strange situation now with this long-running local government reorganisation, and I appreciate that it was long-running before you came into the job, so I’m not casting aspersions at your efforts so far — at least not totally casting aspersions at your efforts so far. We seem to be in a position where the 22 local authorities in Wales are being encouraged to go for voluntary mergers now, even though many or indeed most of them have already suggested strongly that they’re against mergers full stop.
There is evidence that many of them are now working collaboratively on sharing services with their neighbouring authorities. Indeed, this isn’t really a choice for them, given the shortage of money in local government; it’s more of a financial imperative. Councils are going to have to work more collaboratively in this financial climate or the alternative will be cutting more services. So, collaborative working is coming in, whether councils want to do it or not.
What is not so clear is whether we are moving with any purpose at all towards actual mergers. The Minister now proposes to set up a joint working group with the WLGA to talk about possible mergers—and other matters, no doubt. It’s probably a good idea to have this group in some senses, in that it does represent some form of consultation. But, as I said at the start of my response, this has been going on for some time now, this whole reorganisation. So, at some point, presumably, you or some other local government Minister will have to decide whether or not to make any mergers. Your group, chaired by Derek Vaughan, does sound a little bit like kicking the can down the road. When do you think we might now expect a decision on mergers? Will we have a definitive decision by next summer, for instance?
Now, it strikes me that the councils in Wales don’t seem too keen on mergers, but they are involved in this collaborative working. Given this, might it not be a good idea to move away slightly from the idea of mergers and more towards collaboration? I don’t mean abandoning the idea of mergers, but at least beginning a parallel course in favour of collaboration. Could you perhaps effectively monitor collaboration, incentivise it, and reward those councils who can demonstrate that they are saving the public purse effectively by such collaboration? Would this be a way forward?
Now, if you can get voluntary mergers, that would be a good outcome, but we do need to steer clear of one-sided forced mergers, by which I mean one local authority that has designs on another local authority. We have the local example of Cardiff county council, which has expressed its designs on a merger with the Vale of Glamorgan, as evidenced by Huw Thomas’s recent statements. Well, we went through this last time—the Vale of Glamorgan never wanted a merger with Cardiff. They never expressed any desire to merge with Cardiff. In fact, when they had the idea of voluntary mergers last term, they expressed a desire to merge with Bridgend. So, given that the Vale have never suggested that they have any inclination towards merging with Cardiff, could you assure us that we won’t have this outcome if it’s demonstrably the case that the majority of the Vale council has no desire for this outcome?
Lastly, Mike Hedges isn’t here today, but he normally is present on these occasions. I think he has raised a quite valid point on numerous occasions, which is—. He talks about the fact that we’ve had local government reorganisations at regular intervals, roughly every 20 to 25 years, and they’re always called the definitive reorganisation, and then, 20 years later, we start talking about another one. The one point that he’s made flowing from that is: can we demonstrate from any of these reorganisations that bigger councils necessarily lead to significant cost savings? I think we do need to look at this and to see if there is any evidence basis that bigger councils will necessarily lead to reduced costs to the public purse. There is also the example of the enlarged health boards as well.
Diolch yn fawr iawn.