NEIGHBOURING Wrexham and Flintshire councils should merge, a Welsh Government report has recommended.
A report commissioned by local government bosses in Cardiff Bay suggests the two authorities should come together as part of a national reform of council structure in Wales, prompting strong opposition from some community leaders and members of the public.
The Williams Commission report, compiled over the last eight months and published yesterday, has put forward three broad recommendations for the future of local government in Wales with all suggesting the councils merge.
The proposed shake-up comes 18 years after the last round of local government reorganisation, when Wrexham and Flintshire Councils replaced the old two-tier system of Clwyd County Council and district councils.
But Cllr Keith Gregory, who represents the Smithfield ward for Wrexham Council, yesterday hit out at the proposals and raised his fear they could be a “nightmare”.
He said: “If you can’t keep it local, you can’t control it and that is the problem.
“I wouldn’t want it to be the way it was before – it should stay local for local people. It was a nightmare before and we are going back to a nightmare if it happens.
“What would be the use of someone from the Ceiriog Valley looking into problems in Caia Park?”
A decision over which of the recommendations will be adopted must be taken by Easter at the latest, with the report stating the programme of mergers should be completed by 2017-18.
Effects of the report will trickle down to the town and community council level, with the recommendation they should be merged and enlarged to ensure community and neighbourhood representation is “maintained and enhanced.”
The Williams Commission took “key characteristics” of local areas, such as population sparsity, deprivation levels, the use of the Welsh language, council tax levels and economic growth patterns into account in putting together the proposals.
The options presented for the merging of local authorities will see their number cut from the current 22 to 12, 11 or 10.
Cllr Neil Rogers, leader of Wrexham Council, said: “There are 353 pages to the report. At this moment we are undertaking an analysis of the data and what the impact will be for staff, our residents of course and people reliant on public services.
“Once we have undertaken such an analysis we will be in a better position to comment on how public services can be delivered in the future.”
Cllr David A Bithell said he could understand the need to merge councils if it meant saving frontline services.
He said: “You can see some argument for reducing the number of councils. My only concern would be they are taking away some of the localism.
“There is an argument for making boundaries bigger and and reducing the number of councillors. If it comes to a choice between retaining services or merging with another authority I think it will be inevitable.
“Although these are only recommendations, I am sure Wrexham Council and its 52 members would like the opportunity to make a recommendation to the Welsh Government on behalf of the council.”
The report estimates annual savings nationally of £60 to £80m as a result of the changes.
Savings would be made from lower overall salary payments, especially to senior staff, as well as lower payments of salaries and allowances to councillors.Sale or rental of surplus property and lower costs from operating single ICT and other systems would add to the savings.
Upfront costs of the merger are estimated at £80m to 100m, including severance payments to staff, consolidating salaries, integrating ICT and other systems, and relocation and rebranding costs.
The removal of large-scale services such as education and social services from local authority control was rejected by the commission, which said doing so would “increase the cost and complexity of the public sector”.
The idea of “more extensive and permanent” collaboration between existing local authorities was also rejected because it could add “significantly” to complexity and weaken overall governance.
The report states: “We have reflected very carefully on our findings and conclusions on this issue.
“We are well aware that what we propose will incur costs, and will be disruptive and controversial – but we are convinced that doing nothing would be worse. Current structures are simply not sustainable, and the choice is between allowing them to decline further or of reforming them now.”
Sir Paul Williams, chairman of the commission, said: “Radical change is needed for public services to survive in a viable and sustainable form.
“We cannot deny or ignore current and future challenges. Instead, we need a public sector which can rise to meet them. We need a radical shift, which will mean fundamental changes to structures, roles and programmes across the Welsh public sector.
“We all need to embrace the need for change and make it happen as quickly and effectively as possible.
“It is far better to invest in reform now, before it is too late and to create world-class public services and a public sector of which we can all be proud.”
A Welsh Local Government Association report estimated the implementation of recommendations could see 15,000 job losses across Wales, costing £200m to £300m.
Dominic MacAskill, head of local government for Unison Cymru, said: “UNISON has always been clear that 22 local authorities across Wales is an unsustainable position.
“We need to use this chance to ensure local authorities can sustainably deliver good quality services and value for money to Welsh communities.
“However, UNISON is concerned there are going to be significant transitional costs incurred as a result of reorganisation and believes the Welsh Government should commit to fund any reorganisation and local authority budgets should not be required to absorb these costs.“