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Council mergers: win some, lose more?

December 1, 2015

 

An amazing thing about politics is how often you can have a majority in favour of a concept yet no-one agrees on how to make it happen.

 

In this instance I’m talking about local government reorganisation in Wales.

 

Pretty much everyone now accepts that the current arrangement is a dog’s breakfast borne out of ill-considered expediency. Nevertheless political parties differ widely as to the solution.

 

The only common ground between Plaid Cymru, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is that they have all rubbished plans by public services minister Leighton Andrews.

 

Call me jaded, but beneath the calls for consensus and even local referendums, I detect crankiness over the lack of potential electoral gains on offer. The estimate is that four out of the possible eight councils will end up either Labour dominated or Labour-led while the others look destined to be run by coalitions of various hues.

 

I’d like to tell you the UKIP viewpoint on all this but they have yet to express one.

 

Prevailing cross-party suspicions in local government however are that when ministers talk about £650 million annual savings, what they actually mean is cutting that amount from budgets and leaving boroughs cope as best they can.

 

For all these misgivings, it’s noticeable that the prospect of reform has become a bit like the expectation of bad weather. Councils may not like it but there’s not much they can do to stop it from happening.

 

Swansea’s leader Rob Stewart was fairly pragmatic when I broached the subject with him. His view, and its one that’s gaining ground elsewhere, is that the Welsh Government’s plans are way too ambitious in terms of timing and too sketchy when it comes to implementation.

 

The idea of a 2020 deadline is impractical given the number of long-term leases and contracts that currently bind councils into a myriad of commercial arrangements. Even 2024 would be pushing things, say the pundits.

 

As elsewhere in Wales, a re-marrying of services between Swansea and Neath Port Talbot could prove problematic.

 

Some naïve souls would have you believe that it’s just a matter of re-stitching former bits of West Glamorgan county council back together.

 

That might be true for services like education, social care and highways. But the situation before the last reorganisation in 1996 was that the county was also made up of four independently elected districts (Swansea, Neath, Port Talbot and Lliw Valley) all of whom had quite different ways of delivering respective services.

 

A few of those differences continue to this day and affect methods of refuse collection & recycling, social housing and regeneration priorities. People will also naturally want to know how much council tax we all end up paying.

 

Of course there is presently no guarantee that Labour will control the next Welsh government after next year’s elections. If that happens, then all bets could be off.

 

When you look at the complexity and costs involved in merging, I rather wonder how many council leaders will have their fingers crossed accordingly.

 

 

 

More to come from airborne lifesavers

 

There were several condescending smiles back in April when health minister Mark Drakeford first announced plans for a flying doctor service in Wales.

 

Not a smirk in sight however following revelations that the service has helped save more than 600 lives in its first six months.

 

The Emergency Medical Retrieval and Transfer Service (EMRTS) places airborne specialists on air ambulances who can provide treatment that would normally only be available in hospitals.

 

More than a third of recorded emergency calls were to treat either heart attacks or patients in cardiac arrest. One in five missions required vital on-site care following road crashes.

 

The service, backed by Welsh government funding, is a partnership arrangement between Wales Air Ambulance and NHS Wales.

 

Now that they have also recentlly boosted their communications team with some impressive new talent, I fully expect we’ll be hearing a lot more about future exploits. 

 

 

 

Neath backs BID proposal

 

It was a nice coincidence to have been in town the day it was announced Neath traders had voted to form a Business Improvement District (BID).

 

The independent ballot saw 64% in favour of a partnership approach to boost the town’s commercial fortunes.

 

The next stage is for businesses to be told about the planned formation of Neath Inspired Ltd, a not-for-profit management company.

 

A management board will then be elected plus the advisory groups to develop themes. I understand that the BID manager is to be recruited in March in advance of the scheme going live.

 

It was an excellent result and one clearly influenced by having successful scheme on the doorstep.

 

The Swansea BID will be seeking support from traders next February to continue providing a range of services. Based on recent member feedback shared with me by chief executive Russell Greenslade, I’m sure they’ll be successful.

 

 

 

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