Case for Bridgend-Vale merger outlined

(Pic: Wales Online)

UPDATE 24/11/14 : As expected, Bridgend Council have given their approval to the Vale merger proposal, but not without some resistance. Jeff Jones has slammed it as possibly putting EU funding at risk. Some councillors, like Cllr. Reg Jenkins (Lab, Pontycymer), were cautious about the proposal but still voted in favour, while only 8 councillors voted against (40 voted for).

As promised, I’m going to return to the issue of Bridgend’s proposed voluntary merger with the Vale of Glamorgan.

Following on from the Bridgend Labour group giving its go-ahead last week, Bridgend Council’s cabinet discussed the issue in more detail (pdf) at a special meeting today (18th November).

The proposal is reportedly due to go before full council at an extraordinary meeting on 24th November and a formal expression of interest in a voluntary merger will need to be submitted to the Welsh Government by November 28th.

The Options Facing Bridgend

The Williams Commission recommended a reduction in the number of local authorities in Wales from 22 to between 10 and 12. Bridgend was earmarked to either merge with Neath Port Talbot (NPT), or both NPT and Swansea to create a “Swansea Bay” authority.

In July, the Welsh Government’s formal response to the Williams Commission recommended the Bridgend-NPT merger. But in September, in a change of tack, the Welsh Government also called for local authorities to pursue voluntary mergers – setting a deadline of November 28th to express interest.

If local authorities agree to merge voluntarily, they’ll be given more control over the details of the merger, while the date of the next local elections will be pushed back a year from 2017 to 2018 (giving councillors an extra year in office).

Bridgend is in a unique position in Wales of “having to operate across two distinct regions”. Health services, waste services and the Assembly regional AMs work on a regional basis with NPT and Swansea; fire and rescue services, strategic transport planning and some services like civil parking enforcement are jointly-run as part of a Cardiff City region or with the Vale of Glamorgan.

The Williams Commission also recommended that the new local authorities don’t cross local health board boundaries. However, BCBC have interpreted the call for voluntary mergers as a sign that the Welsh Government will allow new local authorities to cross local health board boundaries, as long as there’s good reason to do so.

According to the cabinet report, a three-way merger between NPT, Bridgend and the Vale of Glamorgan was considered. Since then, it’s been reduced to a simple choice for Bridgend: merge with NPT as outlined by the Williams Commission, or alternatively merge with the Vale of Glamorgan where BCBC already collaborate to run services.

BCBC’s case for a merger with the Vale

  • Bridgend is part of the Cardiff city region – Bridgend is already considered a part of the Cardiff travel to work area, cooperates on a South East Wales basis as part of several regional bodies and currently has no involvement with the Swansea city region. Bridgend is also part of the emerging regional planning framework for south east Wales.
  • EU funding administration should continue with few problems – It’s not believed that creating a new local authority that crosses the NUTS2 boundary will affect EU funding, as it can simply be administered to different parts of the authority simultaneously, like Communities First and the Regional Development Plan are.
  • Bridgend is part of the Central South education consortium – ….along with Rhondda Cynon Taf, Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan and Merthyr Tydfil. BCBC believe that switching education consortium to align with NPT will result in a “loss of momentum” in school improvement and have a destabilising effect on the consortium itself.
  • Differences in post-16 education between Bridgend and NPT – NPT operates on a centralised system of post-16 education (nearly all further education courses are provided by NPT College), while Bridgend (and Vale of Glamorgan) still retain sixth forms and only provide vocational courses via FE colleges. Harmonising the systems could be difficult.
  • Bridgend & Vale of Glamorgan are part of the same South Wales Police basic command unit – NPT shares one with Swansea. Merging with NPT could require South Wales Police to reorganise their command structure again.
  • Bridgend and NPT are in different fire authorities – Bridgend is in the South Wales fire authority, NPT is in Mid & West Wales. South Wales Police and South Wales Fire Service are also actively considering creating a joint headquarters in Bridgend. Merging with NPT will either mean being served by two fire authorities or a boundary reorganisation.
  • Merging with the Vale could lead to Council Tax falls in Bridgend – Here’s a controversial one. If current Band D council tax rates were harmonised across Bridgend-NPT, they would rise by £58 in Bridgend and fall £63 in NPT. However, the opposite is true with a Bridgend-Vale merger, where it falls by £85 in Bridgend and rises £78 in the Vale.

What would a merger with the Vale mean?

All the details like where the authority would be based, possible redundancies/staff reorganisations and even things like the name will happen during any formal merger discussions.

What I expect will happen is that senior officer posts will be merged, but the authority would retain some split-site operations in Bridgend and Barry. Some services will probably still be provided along the existing local authority boundaries – they’ll just be held to account by a single set of councillors and committees led by a single cabinet with a single budget.

The Williams Commission proposed that the number of councillors in the merged authorities be capped at 75, meaning a net loss of 26 council seats between the two authorities. Based on current proportions of seats, you would expect 14 seats to go in Bridgend and 12 in the Vale.

In political terms, on current seats the new authority would still be dominated by Labour – though perhaps not as much as a Bridgend-NPT merger. The Vale of Glamorgan also has a much stronger Conservative and Plaid Cymru presence than Bridgend, and the Conservatives stand to lose the most through a merger, as the strong Labour block vote in Ogmore constituency wards will give Labour a massive head start in local elections.

Having more Plaid Cymru councillors in the new authority council (from the strongholds of Barry and Dinas Powys) might boost Plaid in Bridgend. Although there’s a small core of committed individuals, their visibility and presence are pretty poor at present, despite carrying more Plaid votes (on the last Assembly election’s regional list) than the two Swansea seats. On current trends I’d be surprised if that held up in 2016.

Likewise, Independents could be set to gain big, as Porthcawl is becoming an Independent stronghold in a similar manner to Llantwit Major.

Then there’s the impact on the Assembly – especially regional members. A Bridgend-NPT/Swansea Bay merger wouldn’t cause any problems and might make the lives of regional list members easier as they’ll only have to deal with one or two local authorities instead of three.

A Bridgend-Vale merger would cross the South Wales West & Central boundaries. This might create confusion over where and when a regional AM can intervene in terms of casework.

This sometimes happens already and presents few issues, as anyone representing the Vale will have to take an interest in Bridgend’s Princess of Wales Hospital, for example, as it serves the western half of the Vale.

But if it expands to more services then it’s going to cause problems.

For example, if social services across Bridgend & Vale were run from Bridgend post-merger (South Wales West), but someone living in Barry wanted one of their regional AMs (South Wales Central) to take up their social services casework, would current rules allow that regional AM to take up the casework, or would it have to be passed to a regional AM representing South Wales West – who are (AFAIK) currently banned from taking up casework from outside their region?

So at a minimum there would have to be a rethink of the Assembly’s Standing Orders, and at most there might have to be a rethink of Assembly constituencies and regions as well – perhaps with (the current) Bridgend County joining South Wales Central, which would elect 5 regional AMs, and South Wales West electing 3 regional AMs. Or, create two super regions covering south Wales, each electing 6 AMs.

That probably means the Welsh Government and AMs will (still) favour a Bridgend-NPT merger.