Jez Hemming, local democracy reporter
County councillors have blasted what they see as Welsh Government proposals to force local authority “amalgamation by the back door”.
Conwy council’s cabinet discussed its response to the proposed North Wales Regional Corporate Joint Committee (CJC), or so-called “super-council”, at its meeting on Wednesday.
The new unelected layer of government would sit above all six North Wales local authorities and Snowdonia National Park.
The seven authorities’ elected leaders would sit on the new committee with no requirement to run ideas before their respective bodies, nor any opportunity to veto plans that could damage their home organisation.
It would give the new committee power over planning issues, economic initiatives and regional transport – initially.
It could increase its powers, with Welsh Government approval, and even change the way it makes decisions.
Leader Sam Rowlands said the move is the “opposite of devolution”, taking democracy further away from voters.
He said: “What is being proposed is devolution not working as it should. In my opinion communities work better when decisions are taken at the lowest level.
“My problem is they are moving powers up rather than handing powers down.
“If these proposals were seeking to bring more powers from Welsh Government down to the region I’m sure many people would be supportive.
“This is the opposite, designed to make larger organisations and the wider the gaps in accountability the more dangerous it is in my opinion.”
Cllr Greg Robbins, cabinet member for environment and transportation, said: “It’s Welsh Government wanting to take control. The level of democracy is not up to the level it should be for the power CJCs are being given.
“Look at Betsi Cadwaladr, the biggest health board in Wales, and look how successful that turned out to be.
“We need to do everything we can to stop (CJCs). It’s really not acceptable.”
Cllr Goronwy Edwards, cabinet member for economic development, said it was an “unnecessary step at the wrong time”.
He added: “If it starts off with planning and the economy they will inevitably take more.
“Welsh Government is hell-bent on pulling power towards themselves – I would oppose it.”
Cllr Cheryl Carlisle, cabinet member for children, families and safeguarding, said: “Welsh Government is attacking the cornerstone of democracy.
“People in Conwy have elected 59 of us to make decisions. This would be handed away to people who are not interested in what’s best for Conwy.
“I particularly dislike the indecent haste, trying to force it through before Welsh Government elections.
Cllr Julie Fallon, cabinet member for education, said the council had already embraced regional working. She added: “I really struggle to understand this.
“It feels unnecessary and it feels like Welsh Government trying to take more control away from local authorities and have something they themselves can control.”
North Wales Regional CJC will be one of four sandwiched between the 22 unitary councils and Welsh Government, which has made several unsuccessful attempts in recent years to merge them.
Welsh Government said: “We remain committed to supporting councils that wish to merge to improve the services they provide to people in their areas.”
The four CJCs will cost between £10.9-16.5m to run over six years and by law must appoint chief executives, finance and monitoring officers.
Cllr Chris Cater, cabinet member for governance, said he and a working group looking into the proposals had identified five areas of “concern”. They are:
- The “mandating” of the principle and operation of CJCs – councils are being told it is going happening despite the consultation
- Accountability and scrutiny – only leaders of councils will vote on matters and this does not have to be run through home council’s democratic process first
- Leader responsibilities and the need for veto – the leader cannot veto any decision that may be detrimental to their authority
- Financial implications and impact on staff – Welsh Government said it would finance the CJC’s initially but after that it comes out of council cash pots
- The transition and impact of the Growth Deal – on which North Wales councils were already working on to bring jobs, investment and training – and is already backed by £120m each from Welsh and UK Governments
Cllr Philip Evans (Tudno ward), who chaired the council working group looking into the plans, said Cllr Nigel Smith (Kinmel Bay ward) had called CJC’s a “precursor to amalgamation, or amalgamation by the back door”.
Cllr Evans said: “Welsh Government rather likes to deal with a smaller number of entities than 22 for whatever reason.”
He said they had already been working closely with their five neighbouring authorities in the North and it was preferable to have a “voluntary system” of collaboration.
He added: “I think we need to try and get this done in a more respectful manner. We hope some of the grains we have cast before (Welsh Government) fall on fertile soil.”
The new committees are accounted for within the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill, which also contains legislation giving 16 and 17 year-olds – and foreign nationals living in Wales – voting rights.
Welsh Government is hoping to get Royal Assent for the bill by April, ahead of May’s Senedd elections – and CJCs could be up and running by this September.
A Welsh Government spokeswoman said: “The establishment of corporate joint committees will ensure local authorities will be able to do even more in their regions to lead the way in transport planning, land use planning and economic development.
“They offer a consistent approach to strategic planning and delivery at scale, where it makes sense to do so.
“A CJC will not be the only vehicle for local government collaboration, but will provide local authorities with a powerful new tool where appropriate.
“The proposals build on existing successful regional arrangements, such as the North Wales Economic Ambition Board.
“Local Authority Leaders will be CJC members, putting accountability and local leadership at the heart of the decision making process.”