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Monday, April 13, 2015

AM challenges Minister over council mergers

North Wales Assembly Member Mark Isherwood has hit out at Public Services Minister Leighton Andrews AM for "steaming ahead" with Labour’s proposed council mergers regardless of the multi-million cost to frontline services.   

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, commissioned by the Welsh Local Government Association, showed that council mergers in Wales could cost as much as £268m, he points out.
Mr Isherwood, who has previously warned that forcing councils to merge would be "grossly irresponsible" because of the cost at a time of spending cuts, challenged the Minister over his plans in a recent meeting of the Assembly Communities, Equality and Local Government Scrutiny Committee.
He said: “As you’ll be aware, we’ve had evidence from a number of bodies expressing concerns about the costs of merger and how those costs would be covered, including the Welsh Local Government Association referring to the number of jobs that would be lost at all levels, with a potentially significant impact on local employment and economies, but also reference to staffing costs in the context of mergers being a big issue in terms of cost benefit and the business case for mergers. What further thought, if any, have you given to how the transition costs of the mergers might be funded, and what level of support the Welsh Government may provide?
He added: I think local authorities might say that it’s a time of very severely constrained budgets for them as well, and therefore the timing of this will have an impact if additional financial support isn’t given. In that context, how do you respond to the statement to this committee by the Auditor General for Wales that local government reorganisation would not help in delivering savings in the short term, which is the period in which local authorities will be struggling, especially given their current budget constraints?”
The Minister replied: “It would obviously be preferable to be carrying out this process at a time when Welsh Government budgets were increasing significantly, and at a time when local government budgets were increasing significantly. However, we are in the situation that we are and, as I say, there is a significant cost to the current system.”
When Mr Isherwood asked him if he was flexible over the map (of proposed merging local authorities) if this “triggers, as it must, due diligence tests and cost-benefit analyses, which suggest, in parts of Wales, different configurations”, the Minister replied “I don’t think the publication of a further map is the start of the process”.
In February, Mr Isherwood criticised the same Minister for dismissing a newspaper reader poll on a possible merger between Wrexham and Flintshire local authorities which showed that the overwhelming majority of over 700 readers who responded said they were against them joining forces and in favour of giving people in the two counties a vote on the merger.  

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