‘Reorganisation through the back door’ – another council looks set to reject regional body plan
Liam Randall, local democracy reporter
Fears have been raised that plans to create new regional public bodies in Wales are being used to re-organise local government “through the back door”.
The Welsh Government is consulting on proposals to establish four corporate joint committees (CJCs) covering the north, mid, south-east and south-west regions of the country.
They would be tasked with making decisions in areas such as transport and to promote the economic well-being of their areas.
Last week, proposals for a South West Wales regional body sparked a fierce row in Swansea.
In north Wales, the region would cover Wrexham, Flintshire, Denbighshire, Conwy, Gwynedd and Anglesey councils, along with the Snowdonia National Park Authority.
Wrexham Council looks set to oppose the plans after describing CJCs as “another tier of bureaucracy”.
It follows a bid to reduce the number of local authorities in Wales from 22 to just 10 by merging them being scrapped in 2018.
In its draft response, the council said: “The majority of members do not agree with the approach to the development of these regulations.
“There should have been consultation regarding the concept of establishing CJCs prior to the development and consultation on the establishment regulations which outline what CJCs can do.
“This is forcing the establishment and local authority funding of regional government at a time when their limited resources should be focused elsewhere.
“The timing of this is also inappropriate in view of the forthcoming Welsh Assembly elections and the enormous budgetary and operational challenges local authorities are facing at the moment in responding to the coronavirus pandemic – this is not a time to be placing additional budget pressures on local authorities.”
CJCs would function as separate corporate bodies which can employ staff, hold assets and manage budgets.
A timetable published by the government shows they could be implemented by as soon as April next year.
Ministers said the aim was to make regional working less complicated and for authorities to share “scarce resources”.
However, comments made during a meeting of councillors in Wrexham earlier this month included: “This is reorganisation through the back door” and “CJCs are a quango in another name”.
Concerns have also been voiced by Flintshire Council’s deputy leader Carolyn Thomas about the impact on transport arrangements, as well as the loss of officers’ time and expertise.
Speaking at a scrutiny meeting held last week, she said: “If you look at the reports available, CJCs must appoint a chief exec, monitoring officer, chief finance officer and chief governance officer, so they could be appointed from within local authorities or there could be a lead authority.
“Also, there’s an expectation that it could be between one or five days a week given to that role.
“There’s always this misconception by Welsh Government officials that we have a duplication of back office staff and that comes up time and time again and worries me.
“After 10 years of cuts, we do not have 22 duplicate officers in 22 authorities anymore.”
However, the Welsh Minister for Housing and Local Government Julie James said the measures would bring benefits for communities across the country.
In a foreword to the consultation document, she said: “Collaboration has been a key feature of the Covid-19 response and it will also be key to our recovery.
“As part of this approach I wish to bring more coherence to, and strip out some of the complexity of, regional governance arrangements – strengthening local democratic accountability by ensuring that it is local elected members making decisions together about local government services, for the benefit of their citizens and communities.
“These regulations will establish corporate joint committees, as provided for in the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill currently before the Senedd.
“The model of corporate joint committees builds on the best that has already been achieved in the development of regional arrangements in different parts of Wales.”
She added: “Local government leaders and officers have been engaged throughout the development of the corporate joint committee proposals and these regulations and I have welcomed and valued their input.
“I would like to take this opportunity to express my thanks for the constructive engagement which has shaped both the bill and these regulations.”
Councillors in Wrexham will meet to agree their response to the consultation at a meeting on Wednesday (December 16, 2020).