A referendum for council mergers?

Janet Finch-Saunders says council mergers should be subject to a referendum

For too long, confusion has reigned over the future of local government in Wales; and – with it – the future identify of many of Wales’ proudest communities.

With a population of little over 3million, it is widely acknowledged that Wales is over-represented by 22 Local Authorities.

However, Labour’s handling of the proposed reorganisation of Wales’ Councils has been a shambles – and the Cardiff Bay bubble has become obsessed with a numbers game.

We’ve had the costly Williams Commission which proposed either 10, 11 or 12 Local Authorities in Wales. Ministers then binned those proposals – instead proposing 8 or 9. The Local Government Minister has also said Wales could have as few as six Councils. It’s like the numbers round on Countdown – and Labour don’t have the answer.

Their approach to reorganisation and reform has been deeply flawed.

Leighton Andrews’ marker-pen assault on the map of Wales has caused huge uncertainty – to jobs, to local services and to the future of many of Wales’ traditional counties; whilst those Councils willing to voluntarily merge have been dismissed by the Welsh Government. Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen, Bridgend and the Vale of Glamorgan, and Conwy and Denbighshire had all proposed to merge previously – but their plans were rejected.

With the NHS in crisis and educational attainment sadly below the UK average, we feel that many people across Wales will think that now is not the time to implement a risky, expensive and centrally led reorganisation of our local authorities. Furthermore, we have long opposed forced mergers of Local Authorities. Instead, a Welsh Conservative Government would lead a discussion of Councils – allowing them to come together and explore options for viable, sustainable local mergers. It is essential that any reorganisation of Local Government is not rushed, but done right, with a full, open and transparent process – with full consideration by both the National Assembly for Wales and the people it affects – clearly, local communities should be at the centre of any reform of our Councils to ensure that any potential mergers have a full democratic mandate.

That’s why – this week – I was proud to table an amendment to the Local Government (Wales) Bill; which would have made any merger of Local Authorities subject to a referendum.

That would mean no Council merger could take place without the expressed agreement of local people. Any merger would only go ahead if a majority of votes cast in each area is in favour – meaning the establishment of a new Council will require the support of the people it is to represent.

For me, the key word is justification. A clear case would need to be made to local people as to why mergers would benefit them. If the case is made, and the public support – a merger will happen. If it can’t be made – they shouldn’t.

Sadly, Labour Ministers, and other political parties in the Assembly, failed to grasp the opportunity to support this. The amendment fell.

As it stands – many people see areas, communities and identities they strongly associate with under threat. Pembrokeshire, Monmouthshire, Powys and the Vale of Glamorgan – and others – could be expunged from the map, on Labour’s watch.

Welsh Conservatives believe in empowerment – and that is what this policy is all about. The Welsh Government should be taking the public with it on local government reorganisation – and our referenda plan would have been the ideal way to achieve that.

It’s not too late, though. A Welsh Conservative Government in May 2016 will ensure that local authorities have the final say on any mergers.

The people of Monmouthshire should have the final say over their future. Labour’s plans have denied them that right.

The same logic applies to residents in every corner of Wales; from the Vale of Glamorgan in the south, to Pembrokeshire in the West and Wrexham in the North.

My party will make no apologies for putting power in the hands of local communities.

In terms of services, we do need a debate here in Wales with regards to what services Local Authorities deliver.

The nature and extent of services which Councils deliver in the future should have been a focal discussion point in any proposals to reorganise Wales’ Local Authorities.

Welsh Conservatives have championed improved integration of Health and Social Care services; and the direct funding of schools. This could have an impact on the responsibilities of Local Authorities.

Janet Finch-Saunders is AM for Aberconwy.

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