Don’t Mention The Merger!

Council mergers will play a key role in the 2016 election, says Lia Hind.

As political activists across Wales gear up for yet another season of campaigning in the run up to the Welsh Assembly elections in May, it won’t just be the usual topics such as health and education that will be at the forefront of political debate. Because, this time, many will be considering the impact a Welsh Labour win will have on the very survival of their local counties. With the prospect of local government reform very much in voter’s minds, it is hardly a secret that Welsh Labour’s proposal to force dozens of local authorities into mergers has been met with criticism by almost all corners of Wales.

When news first began circulating that the Welsh Government was commissioning a report into local government reform, popular consensus was that the current model of 22 local authorities was unsustainable and indeed, something had to give. But whilst many did, and do still believe that reform is inevitable, what materialised from the now infamous Williams Commission was for many, the stuff of nightmares!

The independent report, chaired by former NHS Chief Executive Sir Paul Williams and published in January 2014, recommended that the current model of 22 local authorities should be slashed to as little as 10 in order to ensure key public services could be maintained in light of budget cuts and delivery more efficient and fit for purpose.

Ironic then, that the findings of said report, which cost the Welsh tax payer over £130,000, was subsequently rebuffed by the newly appointed Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews, and shelved for his own personal preference of how the Welsh map should look – notably, with as little as six authorities. I sometimes wonder whether it would have just been cheaper to simply hand Mr Andrews a box of crayons along with an A4 pad?

Disturbing still, was the proposal that would see the county of Monmouthshire merged with not just Newport, but with Torfaen, Blaenau Gwent and Caerphilly. A Super Gwent if you will!

Not surprisingly, the announcement was met with a barrage of protest ranging from displeasure to outright venom from politicians to business owners, to more importantly, constituents. Because whilst Monmouthshire may reside as closest neighbour to Newport and Torfaen, it is a county that boasts a distinct uniqueness to that of the other contenders for Super Gwent.

Perhaps most glaringly obvious is that Monmouthshire’s borders are predominantly enveloped by English counties and that has resulted in it being heavily anglicised.

It bears very little resemblance economically, demographically and let’s state the obvious, politically, to any of its neighbouring Welsh counties. It has long been considered one of the most affluent counties in Wales (certainly in S.E Wales) and boasts a higher level of ageing residents than anywhere else in Gwent. Figures released by the Office of National Statistics also predict that the population of Monmouthshire will age faster than any other area in Gwent over the next 20 years in contrast to Newport which will see its population age the slowest. This is just one example where the distinct differences between an affluent, rural, ageing county and an urban, younger city council with some of the highest levels of poverty in the United Kingdom will pose a problem when it comes to priorities in terms of policy making. One of the biggest concerns that has been voiced to me by local people and councillors in Monmouthshire, is that of retaining a truly local democratic voice.

The proposed Super Gwent will incorporate four of the poorest regions in Wales – one of which a city – with one of the most affluent and ageing and, therefore, priorities over provision and certain key services are naturally going to vary considerably. I am neither affluent nor ageing (in as much as the term is meant!) but it would be rather daft of me to not respect that the desire to concentrate on issues such as health and social care provision are going to be far more pressing than that of a brand new city centre shopping complex.

And so this brings me to the most important point of all that I fear Welsh Government ministers have so far failed to gauge correctly.

That is, the public’s mood towards the prospect of losing ever more power in the growing trend of centralisation nurtured by the Welsh Labour Government. Super Gwent would shove over 600,000 constituents into one authority with the loss of a vast number of council seats and would require a senior management team so stringently hand-picked from across every former county so as to avoid accusations of personal agendas, it will be the stuff of dreams for regional journalists should any sniff of favouritism towards a particular area arise!

Personally, I would be mortified to think that a group of councillors from Newport along with a senior team of civil servants from Caerphilly would have any bearing at all on a decision to keep my local leisure centre or library open. In fact, even writing this makes my blood boil to be honest!

Let’s also just point out that the overwhelming majority of voter’s in Monmouthshire have returned a Conservative MP, AM and Conservative-led council for a number of years and the fact that all the other four counties primed for Super Gwent are strong-holds for Labour is, whether people like it or not, a massive bone of contention for Monmouthshire constituents. The idea that a Welsh Labour Cabinet dozens of miles away (presumably based in some brand new shiny building the Welsh tax payer’s will be forced to waste more money building should this car-crash happen) will be making decisions on whether to fund a community project in a Conservative-held Monmouthshire village is going to be a very bitter pill to swallow should it be declined.

And whether you support Labour or Conservative or anyone else, this leaves a very nasty taste in my mouth as far as respecting and upholding the idea of localism and the right to local democratic decision making goes.

I know of some Welsh Labour councillors who think it is a great idea as it will undoubtedly snuff out any reign of Conservatives in Monmouthshire and will, in their own words, give them a chance of “being part of a Labour-led authority”. Whilst I personally would enjoy nothing more than seeing the leaders of Monmouthshire Council – both elected and management – kicked into touch, my appetite for a credible, fair and democratic system is far healthier than the one willing to undermine it purely for vengeful purposes.

It’s also worth noting that Monmouthshire was the only county out of the 22 in Wales, to vote ‘No’ in the 2011 Welsh devolution referendum. Some may accuse Monmouthshire of isolating itself from the rest of Wales, but I would argue it is politicians that have isolated Monmouthshire. Monmouthshire has had no choice but to revel in its own uniqueness and accept its seat at the proverbial kid’s table at the devo party, so can you really blame it for being more than a little hacked off it is now simply to be slung into a mishmash of counties simply on the say so of one man? A man, I hasten to add, who was not actually elected on a mandate to carry out such reorganisations!

Lia Hind is a former journalist.

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