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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Labour's local council reorganisation lacks consensus, will push up council tax bills and undermine local democracy

The Welsh Minister for Public Services has failed to build a consensus for the reform of local Councils in Wales. His draft Bill will take money away from local services at a time of austerity and fails to address the fundamental changes needed to democratise councils.

The significant cut in the number of Councillors combined with the omission of a reformed voting system means that the new councils will be less transparent, more unaccountable and remoter from voters.

The projected cost of between £97 million and £246 million at a time of austerity, is an underestimate and will mean greater pressure on services such as education and social services.

The Welsh Government has failed from the very start of this process to build any consensus for change. Even after spending £130,000 on the Williams Commission, they have effectively jettisoned the vast majority of their recommendations, including the make-up of new councils.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats believe that Wales has too many councils, many of which are too small and are underperforming. However, if councils are going to be larger, then it is essential that they reflect the people that voted for them.

Without introducing a fair voting system and the devolution of powers to local communities, this whole reorganisation process is pointless.

Not once does the Welsh Government’s consultation document make mention of a fairer voting system, which would ensure that the new larger councils better reflected the way people voted and bring about more responsive local government. This is humiliating for Plaid who supported the reorganisation plans, yet have achieved literally nothing in return.

While I recognise the need for local government reorganisation, the lines on the map shouldn’t be drawn by politicians. Rather than Leighton Andrews trying to stitch this process up to benefit Labour, he should instead give the independent Boundary Commission the task of coming up with a fresh map, which would be based on natural communities, take account of Wales three major Cities as administrative entities in their own right and which is less ambitious in taking a knife to the final number of councils. Like the Williams Commission I believe 10 to 12 is the right number of reformed councils for Wales.

I would also like to see a more realistic costing exercise, which takes account of the redundancies needed for the reorganisation of wider service delivery and which better understands the implications for ICT in particular. My view is that the £246 million price tag, the Welsh Government itself has attached to reorganisation is too low, whilst the proposed savings will not materialise in the amounts suggested.

I am also concerned about the proposed initial six year term for Community Councillors. By 2023 many will have given up their voluntary role out of exhaustion.

With more cuts due to be imposed on vital local services as a result of the Tory Chancellor’s Comprehensive Spending Review, the question has to be asked if the Minister has got his timing right on this reorganisation? The up-front costs of merger will have to be met somehow and my fear is that much of that burden will fall on council tax payers and poorer services.
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