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Welsh Government to press on with council shake-up

by Nick Powell

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.

We are in the process of conducting our own analysis of what the costs might be. I have seen the Williams commission’s analysis, and I have seen the WLGA’s analysis. It is important that we, as a Government, are able to have that analysis as well. However, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we are seeing unnecessary duplication of effort and cost as a result of the present local government structure that we have, and it must change.

– First Minister Carwyn Jones AM

Council mergers "no silver bullet" say local leaders

by Nick Powell

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.

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Merge, save money and embrace change, councillors told

by Nick Powell

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.

Councils should not challenge auditor says Plaid

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.

It is not the role of local government to challenge the findings of local government but [the council should] comply with them immediately.

– Plaid Cymru Local Government Spokesperson Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM

The minister, Lesley Griffiths, declined to respond because of a potential police investigation.

More action needed on councils' top salaries say Tories

The Shadow Local Government Minister has said that the Welsh Government's crackdown on pay for council chief executives doesn't go far enough.

Recent scandals surrounding the remuneration of some of the highest earners in Welsh local authorities make clear the urgent need for a full review of levels of senior council pay. Whilst I recognise these tiny steps towards greater clarity in setting executive pay levels, they fall far short of the full transparency and accountability that hardworking council taxpayers deserve.

– Shadow Local Government Minister Janet Finch-Saunders AM

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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

First Minister 'open' to council shake-up

The First Minister explains why he might consider breaking a manifesto commitment to start a shake-up of local councils before the next Welsh election. Carwyn Jones said there are increasing calls, including from within local government, for the re-organisation process to begin before 2016.

At his monthly press conference, Mr Jones, said any such move must wait until the Williams Commission on public services reports in a couple of months and would need cross-party support. He also said a bill paving the way for a shake-up would be unlikely to make it through the Assembly before 2016.

It's long been thought that the current number of Welsh local authorities - 22 - is unsustainable. This is the strongest signal yet that senior politicians are intending at least to start the ball rolling before 2016.

Councils shake-up could come sooner, First Minister hints

The First Minister says he is 'open' to starting the process of reorganising local councils earlier than expected. Carwyn Jones' Welsh Government was elected with a manifesto commitment not to shake-up the current network of councils during this Assembly term.

During his monthly press conference Mr Jones said he 'doesn't like changing manifest commitments' but has heard increasing calls to bring forward the process. But he warned that any actual reorganisation was still unlikely before 2016 because of the legislative timetable,

A review is being carried out into the delivery of public services will report at the beginning of next year. There's widespread agreement that the current set-up of 22 local authorities is unsustainable.

Welsh freedom of speech "suppressed" -UK Minister

by Nick Powell

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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