Plan to merge Welsh councils axed in favour of mandatory regional working

The Welsh Government has ditched plans to force local authorities in Wales to merge but is to require them to work together regionally to deliver key services, it has been announced.

The number of local authorities will remain at 22, although the Welsh Government said it would support any voluntary mergers. The Welsh Government had previously sought to reduce the number of councils to eight or nine.

The new way of regional working is to be “systematic and mandatory”.

Local Government Secretary Mark Drakeford told members of the Welsh Assembly yesterday (4 October): “Austerity creates pressures and one of the key questions for me is how we can make our local authorities more resilient to deal with these pressures. That’s why local government reform is a requirement, not a choice.”

Drakeford said he had visited all local authorities in Wales and met with the Welsh Local Government Association, trades unions and others. 

“I have listened to their views and we now have an approach on a possible way forward. This would retain existing local authorities – the ‘front door’ through which people access services – but with key services being delivered regionally,” he said.

“Behind this front door, we would have an enhanced level of mandatory and systematic regional working. This will give local authorities more resilience in terms of staffing and finance and also ensure that services are planned and delivered on the right scale.”

The Local Government Secretary said two models had been suggested to deliver these services; one based around City Regions covering strategic transport, land-use planning and economic development and another aligned to health boards for services such as education improvement, social services and public protection.  

“Of course, some authorities may wish to build their resilience further by voluntarily merging and we will support them to help make that happen,” he added.

“We will also make improvements to community councils in the short term, and establish an independent review to look at the future role of this tier of local government.”

Drakeford acknowledged that local government in Wales had been through a period of extended uncertainty about its future and that this had had a corrosive impact on morale.

He said: “In June I announced that councillors elected to existing councils in 2017 will serve a full five-year term to 2022. Today, I am able to announce that there will be elections to these councils – less any which merge voluntarily – in 2022. This confirms a permanent five-year election cycle and provides local government with a ten-year stable platform from which to take forward reform.”

Insisting that “progress must be made”, Drakeford said he hoped by the New Year to have identified with local government, recognised trade unions and other partners, a viable way forward.

The Welsh Local Government Association welcomed the announcement.

Cllr Bob Wellington CBE (Torfaen), Leader of the WLGA said: “As a statement of intent we welcome these proposals and also the constructive way in which the [Local Government] Secretary is working with local councils to develop a more resilient and stable future for local public services in Wales.

“Councils have long been committed to reform and have developed and delivered collaborative and regional services during recent years…..Only last week council leaders met to discuss local government proposals for reform based on greater regional collaboration of key services based on the City Regions and alignment of other public services particularly in terms of health and social care. Our ideas for future service innovation chime well with the proposals outlined by the [Local Government] Secretary.”

Cllr Wellington added: “What is encouraging is that these proposals highlight how councils will remain embedded in their communities acting as the ‘front door’ through which people access a range of vitally important everyday services. In doing so the proposals outline a vision that keeps the ‘local’ in local democracy and local government, while also offering a coherent agenda for regional collaboration on key service areas.

“There is much detail now to explore, not least on how the proposed ‘mandatory’ approach to regional working will work, but we look forward to working with the [Local Government] Secretary and our other partners to ensure we deliver a workable vision for public service reform in Wales.”

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