Drawing battle lines: A new map for local councils

After years of agonising over what to do with local councils, First Minister Carwyn Jones wants a cross-party deal on a new-look map for local government by the summer.

But will the first minister get his way - and is there an appetite for fewer councils and fewer councillors?

Mr Jones has been talking to other party leaders since late January when the Williams Commission recommended merging councils.

Wales should have as few as 10, it said, instead of the current 22.

The first minister concedes that Labour won't get legislation through this assembly to force a reduction in councils.

He doesn't have a majority in the Senedd and the demands of opposition parties about boundaries and electoral reform make things tricky for Carwyn Jones.

So he wants everyone to at least agree a map for local government with the hope that some councils will merge voluntarily.

What are the chances of that?

Start Quote

The evidence for whether bigger authorities are better or more efficient is at best mixed to tell you the truth.”

End Quote Tony Travers London School of Economics

Rhodri Glyn Thomas, Plaid Cymru's spokesman on local government, says: "We find ourselves in rather a surreal situation at the moment.

"The opposition parties had no part in setting out the remit for this report, therefore the first minister has to take some responsibility.

"He has to tell us exactly what he intends to do and then we can be in a position to respond - before he does that there's no way we can respond to it."

Professor Tony Travers, a local government expert at the London School of Economics, says there are people in government who believe fewer and bigger councils do a better job.

'Fewer councils'

But he adds: "The evidence for whether bigger authorities are better or more efficient is at best mixed to tell you the truth.

"But if you look across the UK over time the direction of local government reform is ever onwards towards fewer and fewer councils and that's happening in Wales, it's happening in Northern Ireland actually, it's happened in England and Scotland.

"So I think we're just part of a long-term trend here towards fewer and fewer councils."

There are dangers, he says, in having big councils.

How do you guarantee people are listened to if the places where decisions are made move further away? It was an attempt to overcome that kind of problem - a desire to bring government closer to home - which led to devolution.

Perhaps people will set aside such worries, if they're convinced they'll get better public services.

Sure there'll be short-term upheaval and even some cost to re-organisation: £100m according to the Williams Commission; £200m say to the councils.

But a more efficient system will repay the taxpayer in the long-run. Won't it?

Start Quote

... there are a number of people who have got disillusioned with councils and may well be quite happy to take the opportunity to leave”

End Quote Mike Hedges AM Labour, Swansea East

"What's always intriguing is that's always said in advance but then in retrospect it's hard to prove," Prof Travers says.

"It's worth remembering that the current set of local authorities in Wales were themselves seen as unitary authorities, biggish unitary authorities, as a solution to the problem of a two-tier system of local government in most of Wales before that.

"That system itself was reformed in 1974 to move on from the counties and districts before that. It's a process apparently without end."

'Disillusioned'

Wales isn't short of councillors. There are more than 1,200 county councillors and an estimated 8,000 community councillors.

Mike Hedges used to be one of them. The former leader of Swansea council is now the Labour AM for Swansea East. How would his party feel about a cull of councillors?

"I think if you'd asked me this in 1995 when it happened last time there would have been huge problems," he says.

"I think we've reached a stage now there'd be acceptance of it and that there are a number of people who have got disillusioned with councils and may well be quite happy to take the opportunity to leave."

However, Mr Hedges does raise questions about the cost of reorganisation. And other Labour politicians - MPs, AMs and council leaders - have given the Williams recommendations a lukewarm reception.

Ministers have spent years cajoling, encouraging and bludgeoning councils to work together. They've had varying levels of success.

The Williams Commission drew a line under that and made the case for mergers.

But that doesn't mean drawing lines on a map before the first minister's summer deadline, will be easy.

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