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.
A report by the Wales Audit Office says councils should explore more opportunities to work together as they look to cut costs.
The Meeting the Financial Challenges Facing Local Government in Wales paper recommends they work with other public services to reduce costs and deliver improved outcomes for citizens. The Welsh Local Government Association said it welcomed the report.
"Local government in Wales has already had to manage significant cuts to its overall budget and, as this report outlines, it has done so effectively. A poor economic climate and continued UK austerity measures mean that the financial challenges faced by local councils in Wales are huge. It is certainly no surprise that some 'cracks' are beginning to show, as local councils are having to 'balance the books' while also attempting to protect the wide range of public services that they have traditionally offered to their local communities.
"The current funding framework needs to be improved so that finance practitioners have sensible funding assumptions beyond the short sighted annualised budget announcements that they currently receive."
– Spokesperson, Welsh Local Government Association
But there was some criticism for the report.
"A major gap in this report is that it says very little about the dynamics between difficult local political choices and selling these to the electorate who understandably do not want to see any diminution in local services."
– Spokesperson, Welsh Local Government Association
Steve Thomas, Chief Executive of the Welsh Local Government Association, says the IFS report into public finances shows that the next decade will mean unprecedented change in local government services.
Figures obtained by the False Economy campaign reveal across Britain over 50,000 council housing tenants have fallen behind on their rent since the reform was introduced in April – nearly a third of all tenants affected by the tax in the 114 local authorities that provided data.
However in some parts of Wales, the proportion of council housing tenants in arrears has been far higher.
In Wrexham and Anglesey, almost half of all council house tenants (44%) affected by the bedroom tax have been pushed into arrears since April.
In Swansea, 38% of tenants in the city affected by the tax have fallen behind on their rent and in Cardiff, 616 families have experienced difficulties.
Wales TUC has welcomed the Welsh Government’s Smaller Properties Programme announced in August which provided £20 million in funding to help with the provision of smaller affordable homes.
Reacting to the figures Wales TUC National Officer, Julie Cook said,
“Today’s depressing news provides further proof that the Bedroom Tax is pushing families into complete despair. Disabled people who need space for their carers and families, and who have nowhere else to move, are being put at risk of debt and homelessness by the tax."
A spokesperson for the Welsh Local Government Association, which represents local councils, said any attempts to change the way Chief Executives and other senior officers are paid could lead to employment tribunals and put off talented staff taking up key roles in Wales.
In the last analysis the legality of this proposal could be subject to judicial challenge and we would expect local government to be fully consulted and involved in any proposals which may impact on remuneration in the sector. The main question must be, has the National Assembly fully considered the wider implications of this proposal in terms of equal pay and the potential ramifications it might have on all council employees in Wales?
The organisation that represents councils in Wales says that council tax will rise by an average of 2.9% in the coming year. The WLGA says this will mean that households in Wales will pay over £200 less on average than those in England. The increase will work out on average at £27 over a year.
This prediction is based on a survey of councils across Wales, although not all councils have yet finalised their budgets.
In England council tax is expected to rise by an average of 1.1% according to the the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.
Welsh councils are seeking to maintain their efforts to keep council tax rates down as low as possible, but it is inevitable that bills will rise given the current economic circumstances. Local government is experiencing unprecedented financial pressures due to the poor economic climate, real terms cuts to grant funding and UK Government reform of the Welfare state. Our focus is on getting the balance right for our citizens.