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Council mergers plans for Wales rejected

Public Service Minister Leighton Andrews has rejected all three of the plans for voluntary mergers put forward by local councils. The proposals would have seen six councils become three ahead of the scheme for compulsory mergers which Labour plan to introduce if the party wins the 2016 Assembly election. They were:

The bridge over the Clwyd, which separates Denbighshire and Conwy, Credit: ITV News
  • Bridgend to merge with the Vale of Glamorgan
  • Torfaen to merge with Blaenau Gwent
  • Conwy to merge with Denbighshire

The proposal from Bridgend and the Vale of Glamorgan broke guidelines that a new authority shouldn't cross health authority boundaries or include areas entitled to different levels of European aid.

The Torfaen-Blaenau Gwent merger was seen as partly an attempt to pre-empt a forced three-way merger combining both councils with Caerphilly.

Conwy and Denbighsire appeared to fit in with the Welsh Government's own thinking but the council leaders had made it clear that they would only go ahead if the costs of merger were fully funded by Cardiff Bay.

I welcome the leadership shown by the political leaders of each of the authorities concerned and their willingness to help shape their futures. I understand that securing agreement from their prospective partner councils took a good deal of work and personal commitment.

I have considered each Expression of Interest carefully against the criteria set out in the Prospectus. I am disappointed to report that on the basis of this assessment I am not persuaded that any one of these Expressions of Interest sufficiently meets the criteria for moving ahead to prepare a full Voluntary Merger Proposal.

– Public Services Minister Leighton Andrews AM

There will now be a rethink on whether to go ahead with legislation that would have enabled voluntary mergers to take place.

Tories warn of Welsh council tax rises

Eric Pickles claims Labour's actions in Wales are a warning to England Credit: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire

The Conservatives are accusing the Welsh Government of actively encouraging big council tax rises next year. The tax has been frozen by the Scottish and Westminster governments but annual increases are allowed in Wales, where tax levels have historically been lower. The UK minister for English local government, Eric Pickles, claims that what's happening in Wales is a warning to voters in England.

Labour haven't learnt their lesson. If anyone needs an example of why Labour can’t be trusted with the interests of British people, this is it. After presiding over one of the worst economic crises in living memory, Labour’s answer to everything is still more borrowing, more spending and higher taxes.

– Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles MP

Welsh councils face an average cut of 3.4% in cash terms in their main source of income -the support grant from the Welsh Government. When he announced the cut, Public Services Minister Leighton Andrews refused to say by how much he expected the tax to rise. However, he told councils that the Welsh Government remains "flexible" about increases.

In setting council tax levels for 2015-16, I urge local authorities to think seriously about the funding challenges they face and to balance this with a consideration of the financial burden on households. We offer considerable flexibility to authorities in Wales which is not available to their counterparts in England, where restrictive freezes apply.

– Public Services Minister Leighton Andrews AM

Ultimately, Welsh council tax rises are nothing to do with the Westminster Government but it's inevitable that Conservative Ministers preparing to fight a General Election will make much of this issue as they have of comparisons between the Welsh and English health services.

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Tax referendum risks 'worst set back to devolution since 1979' warns former minister

In this interview with me for tonight's Sharp End, the former Education Minister Leighton Andrews is robust in his defence of the Welsh Government's tuition fees policy, saying that it's affordable and important for students.

It follow's a report by the Wales Audit Office which claims that the cost of subsidising fees is on course to come in at more than £150m higher than predicted. Leighton Andrews disputes that so I began by asking him why.

We also talk about the possibility of otherwise of a referendum on income tax, something he says that, if lost 'could deliver the biggest setback to devolution since 1979.' You can see what my guests say about that in Sharp End at 1035pm on ITV Cymru Wales.

New ministers take their places

The reshuffle caused by Leighton Andrews' resignation has led to a new role in cabinet for Huw Lewis and a promotion to cabinet for Jeff Cuthbert. In addition, two new deputy minister, Vaughan Gething and Ken Skates, join the Welsh Government for the first time.

The new government in full is as follows

  • CABINET MINISTERS
  • Rt Hon Carwyn Jones AM First Minister
  • Edwina Hart AM Minister for Economy, Science & Transport
  • Mark Drakeford AM Minister for Health & Social Services
  • Jeff Cuthbert AM Minister for Communities & Tackling Poverty
  • Lesley Griffiths AM Minister for Local Government & Government Business
  • Jane Hutt AM Minister for Finance
  • John Griffiths AM Minister for Culture & Sport
  • Huw Lewis AM Minister for Education & Skills
  • Carl Sargeant AM Minister for Housing & Regeneration
  • Alun Davies AM Minister for Natural Resources & Food
  • DEPUTY MINISTERS
  • Gwenda Thomas AM Deputy Minister for Social Services
  • Ken Skates AM Deputy Minister for Skills & Technology
  • Vaughan Gething AM Deputy Minister for Tackling Poverty

A welcome and warnings for new minister

Reaction has been swift to Huw Lewis' appointment as the new Education Minister, with teaching unions and opposition politicians welcoming his appointment but warning him about the task ahead.

We welcome Mr Lewis to the vitally important role when the education system in Wales faces its greatest challenge for decades. There is an immense amount of work to be done as we continue to improve our schools and colleges and make them the best in the world. We will need a minister who is prepared to listen but also prepared to make tough decisions. ATL has always been a critical friend of the Welsh Government and we look forward to working with Mr. Lewis to achieve the lasting transformation our young people deserve.

– Dr. Philip Dixon, Director of ATL Cymru

While I disagreed with many of Leighton Andrews’ policy decisions, I pay tribute to his unashamed desire to raise standards after a decade of decline. His absence from Carwyn Jones’ Government leaves the Cabinet far weaker without the only Minister with the drive to actually do anything. After years of damning results and reports about poor literacy and numeracy standards, we need a bold vision to empower teachers and introduce a well-resourced focus on equipping our young people with the skills and qualifications which are highly sought after by employers.

– Shadow Education Minister Angela Burns AM

One of the Minister’s first tasks must be to confirm there will be no in-year cut in the revenue allocated within their department. Plaid Cymru believes that, in education, it is all about delivery, and it is time that we saw results. We are looking forward to the PISA results later this year [which make international comparisons of schools' performance] and to seeing improvements in our national performance. We also need to see improvements in numeracy and literacy in all ages across Wales.

– Plaid Cymru Education Spokesperson Simon Thomas AM

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Twitter reaction to new Education Minister appointment

NUT Cymru welcomes new Education Minister

We welcome the appointment of Huw Lewis as the new Minister for Education and very much look forward to working closely with him in the future. There are a number of challenges facing the education sector over the coming weeks, months and years and it is important that they are tackled with consensus and conviction.

"There will no doubt be areas where we agree with the Minister and those where we disagree. What is important is that there is a relationship where that debate can take place in a healthy environment. We are sure that the Minister will seek to ensure that the expertise of teaching unions, and other important voices, are all part of his thinking.

"We very much look forward to meeting the Minister at the earliest opportunity to discuss the current state of play in education, to hear his thinking about what direction of travel he wishes to see education develop and how we can work together with the Welsh Government in partnership in future."

– NUT Wales Secretary, David Evans,

Leighton Andrews congratulates Huw Lewis on appointment

The former Education Minister, Leighton Andrews AM, has congratulated Huw Lewis AM on his appointment as the new Education Minister.

Leighton Andrews resigned from the role yesterday.

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