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Why does the Welsh council map keep changing?

The latest plan for Welsh local government Photo: Welsh Government

Back in the 1530s, Thomas Cromwell invented some new Welsh counties for Henry VIII and changed the boundaries of some of the others. His map of 13 counties survived for centuries, though eventually Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and Merthyr Tydfil were made separate county boroughs.

By the 1960s, they were considered a bit old fashioned. Not just because they had been around for a long time but in Whitehall they looked a bit inefficient, especially with all the boroughs and urban districts and rural districts that had formed a second layer of local government as well. There was also a suspicion that ministers thought they were a bit too independent.

So in 1974 we got eight new counties, with 37 districts beneath them. The counties were mostly given the names of ancient Welsh kingdoms in the hope that would inspire loyalty in local people. Some worked better than others. Gwent caught on but Dyfed didn't. And after just 22 years the map was torn up and 22 unitary authorities were created in 1996.

Once again it was hoped that it would prove a more efficient arrangement, especially if they jointly met some of their more important responsibilities, such as education and social services. That didn't happen at all at first and recent steps at co-operation were too slow and too late for the Welsh Government.

So we now have the latest proposals for what's starting to look like the regular shake up, every couple of decades. The Public Services Minister Leighton Andrews has produced a map that looks quite a lot like the eight counties we had between 1974 and 1976, though this time they'd be all purpose authorities, with no districts beneath them.

The Welsh Government thinks north Wales should have two counties.... Credit: Welsh Government
...or three. It's keeping its options open about Conwy and Denbighshire Credit: Welsh Government
But it wants to bring back Dyfed, West Glamorgan and South Glamorgan, with a bigger Gwent and a smaller Mid Glamorgan. There's no news on whether they'll use the same names. Credit: Welsh Government

History suggests that the savings that are always hoped for are difficult to achieve. They assume a smaller number of employees so there's a big redundancy bill as long-serving staff choose to to quit rather than move on to a new council. There's also the problem of different council tax rates. Some people will face increases, which will probably be phased in over several years. That leaves other council tax payers wondering why they're paying more than people who now receive the same services.

It's also unlikely that the new councils could afford to "level up" -always offer the best of what each of their predecessor authorities were doing. So expect more pain and protest over the loss of local services. Of course, the Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews, wouldn't be pushing these changes simply to be unpopular. So why is he doing it?

The current structure is failing to deliver quality services across Wales, with education services still in special measures in several authorities in Wales. Some authorities are simply too small to survive. The current system is costing council tax-payers millions on duplicated administrative services – as KPMG said last week, £151 million a year could be saved if all councils were as efficient as the best. We cannot go on as we are.

– Public Services Minister Leighton Andrews AM

Mr Andrews stresses that this is not yet a final decision but open to consultation and discussion. He hopes to still be in government next year to introduce legislation after the Assembly election, despite mutterings from some Labour councillors that they won't campaign for the party on these proposals.

In any case, Labour have never had an overall majority in the Assembly but have either formed minority governments or coalitions. Unless Labour can win outright in 2016, the other parties are likely to all demand major concessions before supporting these proposals.