Statement on Local Government
Gareth Bennett AM
Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)
Thanks to the Minister for today’s statement, and also for the briefing earlier today. The Welsh Government’s proposed local government reforms have been long in the making, as we’ve heard from other contributors, and yes, we are on the third Minister who has now worked on them. So, the current Minister has inherited a difficult issue, and I think that most of the players in local government in Wales will probably be relieved, to some extent, that we’ve got to this point today—that is, we now have a map of the proposed councils. Because what most council leaders want is some measure of certainty for their sector in the coming years. So, although we are moving to a Green Paper, so things can still change, and are subject to consultation, hopefully we will soon know what the final map of the Welsh councils will look like. Now, that is not to say there won’t be controversy over which councils we do end up with. Janet raised the issue earlier today of possible political fixing. Now, I won’t use the same term, but we know that’s always a possibility when boundaries change. But I think there are genuine concerns that are always likely to arise from this kind of reorganisation.
For instance, residents in largely rural Monmouthshire may well have genuine concerns about the proposed merger with the two eastern valleys councils of Torfaen and Blaenau Gwent. There may be concern too in the Vale of Glamorgan about the proposed merger with Cardiff—a major problem there being that Cardiff is an expanding city in population terms, and the planners in Cardiff would dearly love to get their hands on the remaining green fields in the Vale. But, many people living in the Vale may not wish for that quite so ardently. I’m sure there are other issues that you’ll have to deal with, Minister.
RCT is a big council as it is—this is another issue—in terms of its electorate. I think we did have an inkling that a merger with Merthyr may well have been on the cards, given that a lot of the services are already shared between the two. But throwing Bridgend into the mix as well did come as something of a surprise. So, I’m sure there will be many controversies going forward. We know that there is going to be contention. So, what I do ask today is: your figure of 10 councils—is that firmly settled in your mind? What if, for instance, there is a strong lobby from various quarters for, let’s say, 12 rather than 10? Would you still fairly consider those kinds of representations?
There is also the issue of voluntary mergers. You still leave some leeway for mergers to take place on a voluntary basis. But, of course, the problem with that, as we heard earlier, is that when was proposed by your predecessor but one, he then threw out all of the voluntary mergers that the councils came up with. So, how much leeway are you going to give for proposals for voluntary mergers that don’t fit in with the map that you’ve put forward so far?
Reginal working—Lynne Neagle raised that. You cited the importance of regional working yourself in today’s statement, and I think we need to encourage regional working. I know that there is some good practice going on in the use of regional working, driven by financial imperatives. We know there’s a lot of stuff going on in south-east Wales where they are using shared services. Now, is it your plan—. We know that you have gone away from this comment of mandatory regional working, which Mark Drakeford was very keen to use. He kept using the term ‘mandatory’. You’re not using that anymore. So, how are you going to drive forward the idea of regional working? Also, once you have your councils—whether it be 10 or 12 or however many—will you still be encouraging regional working beyond the parameters of one council? Will you still be encouraging, for instance, Gwent-wide regional working, which I understand is happening in some cases at the moment? Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
Alun Davies AM
Title: Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services Party: Welsh Labour
I will say that the map is an indicative map, which gives indications of the direction that we would like to travel in. But, certainly, if strong cases are made, I certainly would be very prepared to look at all those cases, as I’ve said in answer to previous questions. This is a Green Paper process, where we are happy to consider all different proposals that will be made from any different source in order to look positively at how we can strengthen and empower local government.
I would say that I’d be very disappointed if the representatives of Monmouthshire suddenly found it so difficult to live with myself and the representative for Torfaen. You know, I was born in Monmouthshire in the 1960s—in Tredegar—and Monmouthshire as a concept goes back to the Act of Union. So, we have, over the last 500 years, gained a certain familiarity with ourselves, which I hope we haven’t lost in the last 20 years. So, certainly, it’s something that we have sought to recognise in the way that we are trying to bring people together. But, I have to say to the Member that everything we are proposing today is about beginning a conversation and not concluding one.
But the point that the Member makes about regional working is crucial. It’s absolutely crucial. There are certain things where I think we need to be very clear in what our approach is. I don’t wish to see any new authority crossing a health board or a police boundary. I think that makes sense in terms of a coherence of service delivery and in terms of regional working. The purpose of this proposed reform isn’t an either/or—regional working or a different structure. It is in order to de-complexify, if you like, and in order to strengthen regional working. Many of us have had conversations, particularly those of us who represent the south Wales Valleys, about the complexity of some of our structures today, about the complexity of decision making. And what we want to be able to do is to have governance of a size that is appropriate to a country of 3 million people. What that enables us to do is to create structures that have the power to then deliver regional working in a more profound way, to have a capacity to think and to act strategically within a regional footprint, and to work alongside colleagues in order to deliver either the services or the strategic economic development that they want to see.
So, this is about not simply drawing lines on a map, it is about how we empower local government and how we strengthen local government in order to provide a more robust structure for the future.