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  1. Nick Powell

Council mergers "no silver bullet" say local leaders

Welsh local government leaders have warned that merging councils won't solve problems caused by what they estimate is a £2.6 billion budget shortfall facing Wales’ public services as a whole. They claim that there's a "growing misperception" that reorganisation offers a "silver bullet".

The leaders, who are holding a conference in Llandudno describe the idea of merging councils, to cut their number from 22 to between 10 and 12, as "widespread speculation", though it was recommended in a report commissioned by the Welsh Government.

The pressures being placed on Wales’ public services are significant and complex, and any future reform of how these services are delivered must be based on a consideration of the public sector as a whole rather than a ‘paint it by numbers’ approach to council boundaries. We acknowledge that local government itself must change, but the reform process should be based on a true consideration of the functions and role that local councils should fulfil rather than the structures that are required to support this.

Local democracy in Wales is not an abstract political concept. The public want local government and local decision-making when it comes to the issues and services that they care most strongly about, and public services will always be delivered more effectively when they are shaped and informed through an open dialogue with the people who use them.

In stark contrast to the current response in Wales of increased centralisation and ultimately less accountable forms of government, today’s event will hopefully start the process of remodelling the delivery of local public services on a principle of localism and decentralisation that is far more sensitive to community interaction, more publicly engaged and ultimately more empowering of its citizens.

– Cllr Bob Wellington, Leader Welsh Local Government Association

The conference is also hearing from the Local Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths. She's told councils that they must embrace "profound change" and that if they volunteer for mergers, elections to the new authorities could take place in May 2018.

  1. Nick Powell

Merge, save money and embrace change, councillors told

Welsh councils could start merging into new larger local authorities within four years, the Local Government Minister will announce later this morning. Lesley Griffiths will tell the Welsh Local Government Association conference in Llandudno that a "cosmetic redrawing of the map" won't be enough.

She'll add that although there's a need to save money, that's not what driving reform. The minister will claim that a "profound change" is needed to make local authorities fit for the 21st century. She'll also confirm that councillors elected in 2011 will serve five year terms.

Larger authorities would make more of the money available for the front-line services, but this reform is about much more. It must be a catalyst for profound change so local authorities are fit for this century. Local authorities must be organised in ways which allows the voices of communities to ring loud and clear at the centre of democratic decision making. I want us to work together to put in place a new relationship between local authorities, communities and individuals.

Good leadership will be crucial in maintaining forward momentum during this period of change. Uncertainty could harm this and so I want to confirm the next Local Government elections on the basis of existing authorities will be held in May 2017. I will also legislate to pave the way for local authorities who wish to merge to do so early and to hold their next elections, for the new authorities, in May 2018.

– Local Government Minister Lesley Griffiths AM

The next local elections are being shifted from 2016 to 2017 to avoid a clash with the Assembly election. There could now be local elections two years running as further extending councillors' terms of office has been ruled out, presumably on the grounds that it would be bad for democracy.

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Welsh Govt crack-down on council bosses' pay

Pay for council chief executives is to be regulated. The Local Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths, says councils will be "obliged" to pay attention to a renumeration panel's view of any proposed salary change that isn't linked to a pay rise (or pay cut) for all council officers.

The governance and scrutiny of senior officers’ remuneration is central to guaranteeing the effective delivery of our public services in Wales and to the public having trust in their public servants acting in the best interests of their communities.

– Local Government Minister Lesley Griffiths AM

Councils will also be required to advertise externally all jobs with a salary of £100,000 a year or more. The Minister says "more robust" arrangements are needed because the issue has sometimes been handled poorly and led to negative publicity for Welsh local government.

The opposition parties fought for these provisions to be added to the Local Government (Democracy) Act precisely because we were concerned at the lack of accountability of Chief Officers and the Councillors who set their pay, It was prompted by what had occurred in Caerphilly, but further developments in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, where payments to their respective Chief Executives have been declared unlawful by the Wales Audit Office, have served to underline the need for a tougher approach.

There needs to be clear accountability and transparency when it comes to the setting of pay for senior officers in local government. Too often it seems that councillors are failing to assert their authority on these issues and decisions have been taken that are open to challenge. I hope that the decision of the Minister to give an oversight role to the remuneration panel and to tighten up guidance, helps to redress the balance and drive out any abuses of the system.

– Welsh Liberal Democrat Local Government spokesperson Peter Black AM

Minister refuses blood service statement

The Welsh Government has again defended the Welsh Blood Service for spending almost half a million pounds buying blood supplies from other UK services.

Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams called for a statement from the Health Minister to 'explain why this situation has happened' and to give assurances to Assembly Members that the it was under control.

However Business Minister Lesley Griffiths refused to commit to a statement saying that the Blood Service had reached a temporary agreement to import blood in order to cope with 'a change management programme.'

Minister accuses Pickles of 'astounding ignorance'

The Local Government Secretary has been accused of 'astounding ignorance' by his Welsh counterpart. Lesley Griffiths has written to Eric Pickles after he criticised the Welsh Government for not following his lead in taking action to protect the right to report, film and tweet local council meetings.

In the letter Ms Griffiths says it was 'entirely inappropriate' for Mr Pickles to intervene on a devolved matter; that it was 'discourteous' to make the letter public and that it was an 'extremely surprising and totally unacceptable interference by the UK Government in the Welsh political sphere.'

The letter, which was also copied to the Secretary of State for Wales, has been seen by ITV Wales and marks an escalation of an already bitter row between the two departments and comes on the day the Welsh Government described relations with Whitehall as 'sometimes frustrating.'

  1. Nick Powell

Welsh freedom of speech "suppressed" -UK Minister

A UK cabinet minister says he's concerned that freedom of speech in Wales is being suppressed due to inaction by the Welsh Government. Eric Pickles, who's responsible for English local government, has released a strongly-worded letter he's sent today to his counterpart in Wales, Lesley Griffiths.

It has become clear that there is now a gulf between what local taxpayers bloggers and journalists can do in England and Wales. Welsh councils are routinely blocking people's right to report or film council meetings, leading to the high profile case of a local campaigner being handcuffed and arrested in Carmarthenshire for trying to report a council meeting.

I am concerned that freedom of speech in Wales is being suppressed and as a result, waste corruption and incompetence is potentially being covered up. It is disappointing that the Welsh Government has not taken the opportunity to mirror the legal rights and practices that citizens now enjoy in England, and I would ask you to consider the case for enhancing openness and accountability in Wales.

– Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles MP

Mr Pickles has issued new guidance for the press and public on their rights to report, film and tweet council meetings in England, following new rules on openness that the UK Government brought in last year.

Although responsibility for local government is entirely devolved, the letter has been sent by Mr Pickles' Whitehall department, meaning that it's an official UK Government position, rather than just a party political attack by a Conservative on a Labour minister.

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Severe cuts ahead, warns First Minister

The First Minister has warned the Wales TUC that what called the pain of public spending cuts is far from over. Carwyn Jones said that when the Chancellor delivers his spending review next month, there will be "more of the same" at best and "even more severe cuts" at worst.

Our budget is already £80 million lower in 2014 –15 than was in our indicative plans… and the Chancellor has given a very clear message that he intends to cut a further £1.5 billion from public sector budgets across the UK. We estimate that this could mean a further £55 million in spending cuts for Wales. We will need to prioritise funding to pay for those public services which we all rely on – health, education and job creation. All other areas of spending - and I mean all other areas - will need to looked at very carefully indeed.

– First Minister Carwyn Jones AM

Later, the Local Government Minister told AMs that councils would have to take action very soon to cope with further spending cuts. Lesley Griffiths said they could no longer be spared.

The next UK spending review will further reduce the Welsh Government budget. We will not be able to protect local authority budgets as in recent years. So the financial reductions experienced by local government in England signal the future reality for Wales. Authorities need immediate and radical short-term financial and service planning so as to align public services with the lower level of resources which wil be available in the future.

– Local Government Minister Lesley Griffiths AM

The Welsh Secretary was also in the Senedd to defend the measures set out in the Queen's Speech. David Jones said cutting public spending was both necessary and justified.

The legislative programme continues to deliver on our commitment to reduce the deficit left to us by the last Labour government and to rejuvenate the economy through sustainable private sector growth.

– Welsh Secretary David Jones MP

Minister wishes new Anglesey leaders well

The Local Government Minister Lesley Griffiths has issued a short statement following the news that Independent and Labour councillors have reached a deal to form an administration on Anglesey.

I hope last week's elections will now prove to be a turning point - the people of Anglesey deserve no less. I wish the new leadership of the council well in their task to deliver stable, transparent and accountable local government on the island, in the years ahead.

– Lesley Griffiths AM, Local Government Minister
  1. Nick Powell

Former minister told health council to rethink its objections to change

Just before she was moved in the cabinet reshuffle, former Health Minister Lesley Griffiths signed a letter to Assembly Members telling them she could not consider in their present form objections from the local Community Health Council to proposed changes to hospital services in west Wales.

The proposals by the Hywel Dda Health Board are some of the most controversial of the proposed changes across Wales, involving hospital closures and other hospitals losing some of their services. The Health Minister must consider any objections formally raised by the local Community Health Council.

Lesley Griffiths wrote that there was "no clarity" over which of the changes it can support and which it judges should be referred for ministerial determination. She has told the council to hold fresh talks with the Hywel Dda Health Board and resubmit any remaining objections by 5 April.

[They] must work together to ensure safe and sustainable services ... the Community Health Council is obliged to recognise that maintaining the status quo may not be an acceptable response and must work with the local health board to agree how such services can be maintained within available resources.

Local resolution must be sought wherever possible and referral to Welsh ministers should only be made as a last resort. Where particular proposals are judged not to be in the best interest of health services in the area, the CHC must propose alternative solution s for providing safe and sustainable services to their local community.

– Former Health Minister Lesley Griffiths AM
  1. Adrian Masters

More than a consolation prize for ex-health minister

As if to answer the question I posed just a few minutes ago, the next announcement reveals that the outgoing health minister Lesley Griffiths has been appointed Local Government minister.

It's not a bad move for Lesley Griffiths who will take on a portfolio with almost as big a challenge involved as the health job did. It's much more than a consolation prize. Her reappointment also means that Carwyn Jones hasn't lost a female minister and one from the north.

The question is now, what happens to her predecessor, the popular Carl Sargeant who was widely seen as doing an effective job in the role?

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