Labour and Plaid Cymru have reached a deal that will see the Welsh Government's local government bill become law. The Public Service Minister, Leighton Andrews, has agreed with his Plaid Cymru shadow, Simon Thomas, that there will be no move to force councils to mereg until after next year's Assembly election.
The other opposition parties have poured scorn on the deal, accusing Plaid Cymru of selling out to Labour.
The Welsh Local Government Association has said that today's proposals to shake up local councils offers no further assurances for council tax payers in Wales. It warns that bills could rise dramatically without a clear approach to how council tax will be adjusted when there's a merger between councils that have been setting different rates.
The WLGA says there's no consensus between the councils and the Welsh government about today's proposals. It says they add to the maps and options set out in the Williams report last year but do not provide additional clarity or certainty. The councils say that with no political agreement, reorganisation will take at least five years and warn that disruption, distraction and uncertainty will continue.
The Welsh Government has published its plans to shake up local government. The current 22 local authorities would be replaced by either eight or nine new councils, with the only question left open is whether north Wales should have two councils or three.
The plans go further than the Williams Commission proposals for between 10 and 12 councils. The idea of following health board boundaries has also been rejected, with Bridgend grouped with Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr Tydfil rather than Swansea and Neath Port Talbot.
But to get its plans through, Labour will have to win an outright majority at next year's Assembly election or do a deal with another party. All the opposition parties have other ideas so today's map is not yet a done deal.
The full list of proposed mergers is:
- Gwynedd, Anglesey and Conwy
- Denbighshire, Flintshire and Wrexham
- Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire
- Swansea and Neath Port Talbot
- Bridgend, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr Tydfil
- Cardiff and Vale of Glamorgan
- Newport, Monmouthshire, Torfaen, Blaenau Gwent and Caerphilly
Powys would remain unchanged and the option of merging Conwy and Denbighshire into an additional county is also on offer.
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:
- 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.
There will now be a rethink on whether to go ahead with legislation that would have enabled voluntary mergers to take place.
The Welsh Government will today emphasise its determination to cut the number of local councils. The First Minister will formally respond in the Senedd to the Williams Commission's plan to cut the 22 county and county borough councils by half.
The Local Government Minister will then publish a White Paper on the councils' future. The Government is pressing on despite so far failing to secure the cross-party support it's been seeking. Even the Welsh Labour Party has only just begun a three month consultation before deciding its position.
The Welsh Local Government Association has warned that the costs of reorganisation will be considerable but last week the First Minister made it clear that such objections are not going to stop him demanding that the councils merge into larger local authorities.
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 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.
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.
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.
Plaid Cymru has welcomed the Welsh Government's action on council chief executives' pay but the party's spokesperson raised in the Senedd his concerns about how Carmarthenshire council has responded to an audit report.
The auditor found that Carmarthenshire acted unlawfully by making payments to its chief executive designed to help him to pay less tax on his pension.
The minister, Lesley Griffiths, declined to respond because of a potential police investigation.