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.

27 thoughts on “A referendum for council mergers?

  1. So to paraphrase, rationalisation of LA’s is long overdue but must ensure that conservative areas retain their autonomy no matter how small or incompetent they are.

  2. Absolutely YES. As things stand at the moment Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire are slated to form Dyfed Mark Two (and from what I can gather Ceredigion is dreading the prospect) so yes, let’s have these referenda when the proposals are formally announced and the electoral divisions produced for each authority and I am pretty confident that Ceredigion would deliver a big fat NO to such plans.

  3. Interesting, but flawed – while empowerment is a good outcome, referenda rarely offer it; getting the governance right for each and every place is what matters. it is good the author recognises the excessive number of local authorities in Wales, a shame they don’t offer a route to actually creating a better structure – one good place to start would be the empowerment, and greater formal powers to community councils, they might also be a good place to start creating a positive view of the right local authority areas. Second, any option has to be a whole Wales approach – piece-meal will result in many places being cast-off and neglected – not very empowering

  4. Indeed poor little Ceredigion (reputation for being well run) is quaking at the prospect of merging with the two banana republics of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire. I can see the attraction of small and well run over big and incompetent !

  5. Main problem with Local Governance is the electoral apathy as the average turnout in England & Wales is circa 30% and in my view only the compulsory voting will ever change this.

    On boundary changes Janet has a point and local feelings and preferences must be respected but not sure if a referendum is needed for that.

    In Wales we can’t hide from another issue which is the cultural and linguistic divide especially in North West Wales and from what I see in my locality no other County wants to merge with Gwynedd – Wonder why?

  6. Unitary authorities are overrated. However you carve them up they will be too small to efficiently provide some things and too big to ensure true local involvement in things that could be handled at a district level. The argument runs that if you have a couple of tiers the public won’t know who is responsible for what. So what’s new? Half the public don’t know what the Welsh government and Westminster do or what current councils do. They mix it up and vote on irrelevant issues anyway. That’s life. I am all for developing and empowering community councils to provide really local government. Existing authorities should be encouraged to merge functions on a voluntary basis. Nine or so county-type councils could sit over them and they could pool resources to form just 3 or 4 education authorities.

  7. I agree – we should be consulted. Rural Monmouthshire amalgamated with Newport is a dreadful prospect and we need ways to fight this and to raise people’s awareness of the prospect.

  8. Anyone who takes democracy seriously has to agree with Mrs Finch-Saunders. The people with most to lose, and with the best knowledge of local conditions, should have a say in the basic structure of their governance. Let the consumers of local services decide for themselves what is too big and too small. Unhappily, very few in Welsh public life are that keen on actual democracy, so this is not going to happen.

    The irony of the Welsh Assembly brought into be being in the name of ‘decentralisation’ is that it has, in practice, been a constant advocate of centralisation ever since, both relative to local government and in its own internal arrangements. This belief in central planning, and suspicion of local autonomy, is a fundamental principle of the Old Labour ideology that still prevails in Welsh politics.

    While everyone says they agree that there should be a greater role for community councils, where they exist, this should not be seen as a substitute for unitary authorities that reflect local identities. We should also beware of bringing back the disastrous two-tier system by the back door, the worst of all possible outcomes.

  9. As I say Jacques, if you lived in somewhere other than Gwynedd you and everyone else would be a lot happier.

  10. Anne Wareham is absolutely correct; Monmouthshire is a natural fit with Herefordshire not Newport.

  11. J Jones is spot on. We must unite Monmouthshire with Herefordshire, as a matter of urgency. That would really enhance the EnglandWales union project.

  12. Janet makes a valid point where she says: “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.

    My suggestion would be to have another referendum but only on the fate of the Welsh Assembly. We had 16 years of unmitigated disaster where the Democracy was the first victim of Welsh Devolution Journey.

    Welsh Government through its Y Fro leaders has created an Orwellian world where minority rules majority through its culture and language that has damaged Wales immensely.

    Let’s be brutally truthful and honest about this and put it to Welsh people for their verdict via a definitive referendum. With so many years of experience of seeing decline of education NHS and the Economy I feel confident that the vast majority of Welsh people would want to go back to Westminster rule!

  13. @J Jones- Anne Wareham did not say anything about merging with any English county. Interesting that you believe the eastern half of the old Gwent is better matched with Herefordshire than with Newport. Why is this I wonder?

  14. Sorry Ben…I thought that we were discussing what would be best for the people living in various counties. I was thinking:- Powys/Shropshire, Flintshire/Cheshire, Monmouth/Herefordshire. They just seem to be logical groupings.

    After all, when it comes down to it, we’re all British.

  15. Students taking the undergraduate module in ‘The Welsh Tradition of Ranting’ will do well to study the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ blog. One modern practitioner of this tradition can be found there who refers back to the same themes repeatedly. All politics in Wales is a disaster, it is led by a minority called Y Fro, they are able to deceive the democratic majority by their use of culture and language and so on.

    Another interesting aspect of this tradition is its interpretation of historical data. You will remember from the core module ‘The Development of Welsh Democracy that over a 14 year period, those in favour of a Welsh Assembly increased from 50.3% to 63.49%, an increase of 13.19% since 1997. To the Welsh ranter, however, this evidence no longer represents the views of the Welsh people since the majority are, in his view, in favour of abolishing the Assembly. In fairness, his evidence for this is unarguable. It is because he says so.

  16. There is no easy solution to the re configuration of local government.I live in VoG and only two options available,1,Be absorbed and greater Cardiff,2 Join with socialists in Bridgend so its between the devil and deep blue sea for us!!.I’m not sure that today there is the need for local democracy,(which is a sham as ALL main policy decisions taken by WAG),but rather give much greater powers to a)individuals,b)communities to organize how THEY want services to be provided and paid for out of own income. One problem is the sheer numbers of people who do not pay tax/council taxes as income so low that the state pays it all through other peoples taxation.What ever happens it’ll be a political FIX with the usual suspects gaining greater power over our lives.

  17. Herefordshire could be made part of Wales and merged with Monmouthshire. Their health trust is in special measures and their ambulance service is struggling – they would fit right in !

  18. J Protic, as ever, is accurate in his observations. If a Yes / No devolution poll was held now, at least 75% would vote to abolish devolution, and opt in favour of full merger with England. Sadly, in the Orwellian, Cymraeg-obsessed paradise of Cardiff Bay, this will never happen.

  19. @ Ken Thompson

    “If a Yes/No devolution poll was held now, at least 75% would vote to abolish devolution and opt in favour of full merger with England.” What is your evidence to support your opinion apart from the fact that you say so?

  20. Ah well Rhobat that 2011 thing was just a “tidying up exercise” to iron out a cumbersome means of making laws in Wales. Imagine my surprise when overnight it became a resounding victory for those staggering towards an independent Wales. Still we had it on the authority of none other than Carwyn himself that the 2011 referendum would not lead in any way to further devolution of powers and that the Welsh people would, on his solemn promise, never have tax raising powers devolved to them without another referendum. Here we are with tax raising powers and every sign that income tax raising powers will be foisted on us whether we like it or not…and the polls say not.

  21. Would turkeys vote for Christmas?

    Such a referendum would need to reflect those people who do not want a local authority at all and are willing to pay for any services they want from competitive private businesses. In essence they would be voting for a reduction in taxation.

  22. Those two maps Brian….Anglesey can either be part of Gwynedd or part of Gwynedd. The only trouble is that no one I know in Anglesey wants to be part of Gwynedd….oh, that is apart from Plaid councillors of course. So in one fell swoop a county that hasn’t had a Plaid council becomes Plaid for evermore when linked to Gwynedd.

    Blow up the bridges and let us drift into the Irish sea.

  23. i ran a community association in my area for twenty years. Its a community of some 12,000 people. A good mix of all sorts. In twenty years of dealing with cardiff council i frankly cannot wait to see its utter demise along with all the other councils along with the assembly. They are all to a man and women out of touch with communities and there to serve themselves and their divisive parties to maintain power at any cost. Cardiff council have built a poisenous incinerator in the mddle of a city, they have spent and wasted millions on dustbins with wheels to feed the private multinational company taking millions off the assembly. But they failed to ensure that the monies they spent on these unwanted dustbins on wheels went to our libraries, our schools our leisure centres. The last thing this lot will ever do is give up power, whatbwouldnthese plastic ugly people do with themselves where wouldmthey get the enormous expenses and wage packets from, would they have to get a real job. Probably. I envy the prospect of monmouth being ablento merge with herefordshire, imwish i couldmtake my community out of cardiff altogether. Under labour it has lost everything, its library, its schools, its leisure centre. It does have a toxic tip full of incinerator bottom ash illegaly dumped there by the council, the product of the poisenous incinerator whose pollution is equivelent to volkswagens car cheating. I do not see any political party giving any hope to the people to rid themselves of the yoke of these political little napoleons.

  24. @ J.Jones

    “The only trouble is that no one I know in Anglesey wants to be part of Gwynedd..”

    A lot of people in Gwynedd don’t want to be part of Gwynedd either! Is there a referendum for that?

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