Wales' council re-organisation – a new way forward

Carwyn Jones began his monthly news conference on Monday by talking about the James Bond studio Pinewood opening up a new film and TV location in Cardiff.

As interesting as that is, I'm going to tell you about what he had to say concerning local government re-organisation which will be of more interest to the 150,000 council workers in Wales.

The background is that the Williams Commission last month fired the starting gun on local government reorganisation when it recommended that the current 22 councils should be cut to between 10 and 12 through a series of mergers.

Since then Carwyn Jones has been meeting up with opposition party leaders to try to build enough support to fast-track legislation through the assembly before the next elections in two years.

On Monday, we found out that's unlikely to happen. The first minister said the chances are "very small indeed."

So it seems almost certain that there will be no quick deal to force through council re-organisation this side of the assembly elections.

Definitive map

We were told the Liberal Democrats are insisting on voting reform, the Conservatives have some issues about the boundaries and Plaid Cymru haven't made up their minds.

The Williams Commission talked about an Easter deadline on the way forward.

The first minister insists that was never a Welsh government date.

Its deadline is the summer to agree a definitive map with the opposition parties.

Once that is done, he says he hopes to encourage councils to merge voluntarily because it will be in their interests to do so and they will then know that the map is not going to change.

A number are already said to be examining this possibility.

What else the parties want to do with councils will be in their manifestos, and then the formal law making process will get under way after the elections.

Carwyn Jones said it's likely the full formalisation of the process will be completed by 2018.

His hope is that by then the mergers will have been completed although he did also admit that the voluntary process won't be enough to cover all of the mergers that were proposed in the Williams Commission.

Just in case you're wondering what's going to happen to your council, the commission concluded as a minimum, that the following local authorities should merge:

  • Isle of Anglesey and Gwynedd
  • Conwy and Denbighshire
  • Flintshire and Wrexham
  • Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire
  • Neath Port Talbot and Bridgend
  • Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr Tydfil
  • Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan
  • Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly and Torfaen
  • Monmouthshire and Newport

With Carmarthenshire, Powys and Swansea unchanged, this would leave 12 authorities.

There is the option of Swansea merging with Neath Port Talbot and Bridgend and Carmarthenshire joining Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire to reform the old county of Dyfed.

Carwyn Jones said there were good reasons for Swansea to standalone but said there was no agreement yet on what to do with the counties further west, which have been in the headlines for different reasons in recent days.

There's been no word yet from the Welsh Local Government Association and the opposition parties on this way yet.

Until we get that, it's difficult to work out how realistic these ideas are but there's likely to be resistance from within the Labour party and within the existing councils.

But the message to local authorities was clear: council change is going to happen, the exact map will be published by the summer and once that is done then it's in your interests to do it voluntarily before we force you.

It was a hard-hitting message from a first minister who is not pulling any punches these days in criticising the record of the 22.

He said the current structure is collapsing, particularly in relation to education where a third are in special measures.

He added: "We have to have a structure for local government that is robust in the future in the way that this structure has not been, and was never meant to be robust given the changes that happened in the mid 1990s."