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First Wales council merger backed - updated

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Denbighshire CC has agreed to back a merger with neighbouring Conwy CBC.

The move follows Welsh local government minister Lesley Griffiths’ decision this summer to introduce legislation allowing voluntary mergers among councils ahead of a full reorganisation in 2020.

Ms Griffiths acted after the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery, which was set up by the Welsh Government, said in January that Wales’s 22 councils were unsustainable and should be merged to form between 10 and 12.

Denbighshire chief executive Mohammed Mehmet said in a council report that merger with Conwy might allow the two councils to secure a deal from the Welsh Government “that enables the council to avoid making the worst of the cuts and create the time to extract savings from the merger to protect services”.

His paper added voluntary, rather than forced, merger “sets the right tone for the future culture of the new organisation”.

But there were also risks including that “if Denbighshire and Conwy managed to fall out during the process the reputational damage would be enormous and the culture of the new council…would get off to a very bad start”.

The Welsh Government’s financial planning “can appear chaotic, so there must be a risk that any promises of funding and support, offered to encourage voluntary merger, would not be honoured”, Mr Mehmet added.

Denbighshire could not easily merge with any of its other neighbours since Wrexham CBC and Flintshire CC were too different in their interests, being more industrial and English speaking, the paper explained.

Conwy is due to debate the issue on 18 September.

Discord reigns though in south Wales, where Caerphilly CBC has rejected the Williams Commission’s proposal that it should merge with Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen CBCs.

Leader Keith Reynolds (Lab) said in a statement: “We want to send a strong message to everyone that this cabinet’s overriding view is that we will be looking for the authority to press the case to Welsh Government for a stand-alone solution.”

A Torfaen spokesman said its preference was to merge with Blaenau Gwent and Monmouthshire CC, since communications to the latter were easy but were impractical with Caerphilly given the valleys run north-south and so obstruct east-west links.

The commission had called for Monmouthshire to combine with Newport City Council.

Blaenau Gwent has not yet debated the issue, a spokeswoman said, while Monmouthshire leader Peter Fox (Con) said he thought the whole concept of reorganisation was a mistake.

“We need our staff looking at innovation not worrying about their futures,” he said.

“Merger is a distraction. We have been told we should merge with Newport, we’re friends and we work together but I cannot see that taking all the time needed for a reorganisation is going to be helpful.”

Welsh councils are also promoting the idea of creating combined authorities – modelled on those in England – as a way of heading off mergers and a full reorganisation.

A Welsh Local Government Association discussion paper has proposed that the 22 councils should remain but with the formation of four combined authorities that would between them cover the whole of Wales and have powers over regional level transport, strategic land use planning, economic development, waste processing and commissioning of health and social care.

The paper said: “The prospect of another local government reorganisation is placing Welsh public services in a period of limbo, which began well over a year ago and is set to continue until at least the end of the decade.

“At a time when public service organisations need to be alive with innovation and forward thinking as they seek to manage their way through austerity they are instead in a state of sullen stasis as they look forward only to their demise.”

Setting up combined authorities would instead ensure that “the huge sums of money spent on the complex architecture required for a full-blown reorganisation is retained in front-line services and fully subject to local democratic accountability”.

 

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