Recalling impact of old county mergers

Published date: 29 January 2014 |
Published by: Rhian Waller 
Read more articles by Rhian Waller  Email reporter


THE Williams Commission, set up by the Welsh Government, recommended last week Wrexham and Flintshire counties should merge.

That means almost 300,000 people could see their addresses altered in the near future – even if some systems still haven’t caught up with the dissolution of Clwyd County Council in 1996.

The Wrexham-Flintshire merger proposal has been described as “difficult to control” by Wrexham councillor Keith Gregory, while the current system of 22 Welsh county councils was said to be “unsustainable” by the trade union Unison.

The Williams Commission report concluded the mergers across Wales could save the national economy between £60 and £80 million, but there are fears the measure could lead to up to 15,000 job losses across the country.

If the merger goes ahead, it will be the fourth major restructure on the watch of veteran Flintshire councillor Tony Sharps, representative for Northop Hall.

He said: “I’ve been a councillor for 50 years. In that time, I’ve served on Delyn Borough Council, back when you had the old rural authorities, then Clwyd County Council and then Flintshire County Council in 1996.

“Not a single one of those restructures made any sense.

“Every single one was a living nightmare and outrageously expensive to the rate-payer. This new one would be another waste of money.”

Cllr Sharps described council restructures as a “huge upheaval” and said the borough council system should never have been altered in 1972, when the Clwyd mega-county incorporating sections of Conwy, Denbighshire, Wrexham and a small part of Merionethshire was created.

He said: “The localised counties worked well. Delyn had 17 rural villages as well as Mold, Flint and Holywell towns. It was excellent.

“Delyn was the first borough council to introduce the bus pass and lottery grants.

“It was comfortable to manage, it operated as an authority should operate. It gave good services to everybody. People still talk about it today. Everything since has been an absolute disaster.”

Cllr Sharps described the now-defunct Clwyd County Council as a “huge monster”, saying the transition from separate authorities to a single, larger authority in 1972 was difficult.  

He said: “Everyone was arguing about where the headquarters were going to be.

We had council buildings in Mold, Wrexham and Ruthin. There was no continuity.

“It was one of the worst councils in Wales in my experience.”

Of course, a merger of Wrexham and Flintshire would not result in a single authority on the same scale as Clwyd County Council, which still shows up in some postal and online search systems despite the council’s dissolution in 1996.

Cllr Sharps said the move to make Flintshire and Wrexham into separate authorities 18 years ago was more sensible an idea than Clwyd County Council ever was.

“It’s more manageable and an improvement on what went before,” he said.

“But it’s still very expensive. Flintshire employs 2,000 people more than Clwyd County Council did and that covered a far bigger area. It’s like a raving animal out of control. If the merger happens, I suspect it will double the problem.”

Shân Wilkinson, who became leader of Wrexham Council, first took her seat as Clwyd County Council was breaking up in the mid 1990s.

Mrs Wilkinson, who has retired from politics and now works for the Cheshire Library Service, said: “I started as a newbie councillor in 1995, which was the last year of Clwyd County Council.

“At the time, they were running a shadow council to ease the transition. I recall it was quite a smooth process, although there were a lot of changes.”

At the time, Mrs Wilkinson worried the 22 unitary authorities – including Flintshire County Council and Wrexham County Council – would be too small to cater for all of the public services provided by the much larger Clwyd County Council.

She said: “There was a steep learning curve.

“Because of the restructure and the creation of unitary authorities rather than the old two-tier system, we began to realise just how much Wrexham County Council was going to have to deliver and how many new roles it would have to take on.

“I started thinking – maybe Wrexham Council isn’t too small. There are a lot of responsibilities here.”

One of the benefits of a smaller council, said Mrs Wilkinson, is the area retained its identity.

She said: “It was pretty clear we covered Wrexham and the surrounding villages.

That stronger identity might prove troublesome if Wrexham merges with Flintshire.

“It’s difficult to imagine how someone in Wrexham can complain about something happening in Holywell. There's inevitably a bit of rivalry between neighbouring councils and that would have to be ironed out during the transition.”

Mrs Wilkinson pointed out the neighbouring counties have a history of co-operation. In 2011, they voted to merge their local safeguarding children boards – as the two bodies were doing identical jobs.

Having said that, Wrexham Council declined to become involved in the North Wales Residual Waste Treatment Project, overseeing the controversial Deeside incinerator plan and undertaken by every other North Wales authority – Flintshire, Conwy, Denbighshire, Gwynedd and Anglesey.

Mrs Wilkinson said: “People may ask why we’ve gone from a big authority to much smaller county councils and then are looking to merge again.

“Perhaps the Wrexham and Flintshire merger might be the best way to go – in which case you have to ask why we didn’t do that in the first place, instead of waiting 18 years.

“But a lot of thought went into setting up the individual authorities. It may simply be there is no optimum size for a council.”

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