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Wales combined authorities idea dies

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The Welsh LGA has abandoned attempts to create combined authorities to stave off mergers of the country’s councils.

It last month put forward the idea of keeping the existing 22 councils but forming four regional combined authorities above them.

This was seen an alternative to the Welsh Government’s plans to cut the number of councils to between 10 and 12 through a series of possibly forced mergers.

But the idea failed to win support, and was dropped when the WLGA council met on Friday.

It instead adopted a package of demands for devolved powers in the event mergers go ahead.

The Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery, which was set up by the Welsh Government, reported in January that the retention of 22 councils was unsustainable.

Leighton Andrews, who this month became the country’s public services minister, has warned: “Local government cannot continue to operate as it has done.”

WLGA chief executive Steve Thomas told LGC: “Combined authorities may go forward as part of the city region debate in certain places, but there was not support for them across Wales.

“A few of our members want to do voluntary mergers and ultimately the WLGA cannot impose a view, this should be for councils to decide.”

His report to the WLGA noted some councils feared combined authorities would turn into a two-tier system, and others that the savings would be too low to impress the Welsh Government.

“Overall for the approach to go forward nationally it would have needed complete support from 22 authorities,” the report said. “That has not been forthcoming.”

The WLGA adopted a 17-point list of powers that should be passed to councils.

These included responsibility for setting landfill tax, devolution of public health and employment programmes and a power of general competence.

Mr Andrews has given councils until 28 November to express interest in voluntary merger. So far, only Conwy CBC and Denbighshire CC have done so.

Elsewhere, merger proposals have struggled. Flintshire CC voted to open merger talks with Wrexham CBC, but the latter had declined to take part.

Newport City Council last week voted to oppose the merger with Monmouthshire CC recommended by the commission.

Newport leader Bob Bright (Lab) told the council: “I would suggest this council should remain autonomous, given the importance of the three main cities [of Wales] for economic regeneration it would be a retrograde step if we were absorbed into a rural council.”

A paper put to Vale of Glamorgan Council by leader Neil Moore (Lab) argued that merger with Bridgend CBC would be a better than with Cardiff City Council, as proposed by the commission.

The report said: “The council’s current position is that it would wish to continue as a self-standing unitary council.”

Should merger become unavoidable, “Bridgend and the Vale council areas are of a similar size [and] would have a population of 266,000 which is large enough to benefit from economies of scale and provide resilience.”

But it warned the Vale could be swallowed up if combined with Cardiff in a 472,000 population area. A Cardiff spokesman said the council was yet to discuss the matter.

Meanwhile, Ceredigion CC has resolved: “the interests of its citizens will be best served by keeping Ceredigion’s sovereignty”.

Councils in south-east Wales have objected to the commission’s proposed merger models as these would create councils that cut across the north-south geography of the valleys.

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