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Agenda Item No.

 

THE VALE OF GLAMORGAN COUNCIL

 

CABINET: 28TH NOVEMBER, 2014

 

REFERENCE FROM EXTRAORDINARY COMMUNITY LIAISON COMMITTEE: 19TH NOVEMBER, 2014

 

 

            EXPRESSION OF INTEREST TO WELSH GOVERNMENT FOR VOLUNTARY MERGER (REF) -

 

Cabinet at its meeting on 17th November, 2014 had approved the preparation of an Expression of Interest (EOI) in respect of a voluntary merger with Bridgend Council and resolved that that EOI  be submitted to a future meeting of the Cabinet prior to submission to Welsh Government by 28th November 2014. The Cabinet had also referred the report to the Community Liaison Committee for its information.  At the Community Liaison meeting the Leader of the Council, ( with permission to speak) informed Members that an extraordinary meeting of the Cabinet had been arranged for Friday 28th November 2014 in order for Cabinet to consider the Expression of Interest for submission to WG. Committee was further informed that should approval be granted for the submission, it would subsequently be referred to the Council  meeting scheduled for 17th December, 2014.  This being in accordance with the Welsh Government prospectus which allowed for an EOI to be approved by Cabinet for submission and considered by Full Council shortly thereafter. 

 

In presenting the report to the Community Liaison Committee the Head of Performance and Development provided Members with the background to the report by advising that at a Full Council meeting on 29th September, 2014 consideration had been given to the response to the Welsh Government’s White Paper Reforming Local Government which proposed mergers of Councils including that of the Vale of Glamorgan and Cardiff Council.  At that same meeting the Council had  also considered the Welsh Government’s associated document Invitation to Principal Local Authorities in Wales and Submit Proposals for Voluntary Merger’ which invited Councils to submit, by 28th November, 2014, bids for voluntary mergers which would allow them to merge sooner than Welsh Government’s legislative timetable otherwise allowed for.  The resolutions  from that Council meeting being reported as follows :

 

  • That Council notes the issues set out in this report for its consideration and   indicates its views.
  • That this Council confirms its previous resolution to resist a forced merger with Cardiff City and County Council and believes that the Vale of Glamorgan County Borough is a sustainable Council in its own right and urges Welsh Government (WG) to allow the Vale of Glamorgan Council to continue as a stand-alone Council.
  • That should this position not be agreed by WG or that indications from WG confirm that they will not give such an undertaking, delegated authority is given to the Managing Director in consultation with the Leader to enter into pre-emptive negotiations for a voluntary merger with other Councils that share the same values and cultures as we do here in the Vale of Glamorgan.
  • That WG be contacted to confirm what arrangements and financial support are available to this Council for proceeding with an early adopter approach.
  • That the Leader agrees to keep all other Group Leaders informed of the progress or otherwise of the above resolutions.
  • That a further report be presented to Cabinet and any subsequent Council meeting, including an extraordinary Council meeting if deemed necessary.    
  • That delegated powers are granted to the Managing Director, in consultation with the Leader, to respond to the Welsh Government White Paper on the Council's behalf.

 

The Head of Service further informed Committee that in view of the developments to date, including discussions with a variety of partners on the options available to the Council, it was now considered that rather than pursuing a stand-alone course of action the Council should aim for a voluntary early merger with Bridgend Council.  Of note also was the fact that for authorities merging voluntarily there would be no elections in May 2017 with sub-ordinate legislation providing for the term of office for  existing Councillors to be extended to May 2018.  In October 2017 the Shadow Authority and Shadow Council for those merging authorities would be established consisting of the full body of serving Councillors on the Constituent Councils, the functions being to prepare for the creation of the new authority as specified by a specific order.  For Councils not pursuing a voluntary merger the timetable differed and was detailed in paragraph 5 of the report.

 

In considering the best way the Head of Service referred to two separate but related issues that had needed to be discussed which were:

 

  • Why should we apply for an early, voluntary merger rather than await the legislative process?
  • Why should the Council merge with Bridgend rather than as set out in the White Paper with Cardiff Council?

 

The Head of Service stated that as recognised by the Council’s Reshaping Services Change Programme a voluntary merger offered a unique opportunity to radically transform the Council’s approach to public service delivery to create an organisation that was able to understand and influence the needs of its communities and was able to adapt and innovate in order to deliver joined up solutions.  Welsh Government had also stated in their prospectus for voluntary mergers, which was attached as an Appendix to the report, that extensive Welsh Government support would be made available for Councils progressing voluntary mergers.  To date, recent discussions with Welsh Government had indicated that dedicated Welsh Government teams would work jointly with Councils whose bids were accepted. 

 

In determining whether the Council could continue as presently constituted rather than merging both the Leader and the Head of Service advised that it was becoming increasingly apparent that the dire future predictions of public expenditure had had a direct bearing.  From discussions on an earlier agenda item at the meeting namely the Reshaping Services Programme, Members were informed that all Council services were currently being subjected to assessment to determine what approaches could be taken in response to substantial budget cuts.  From this information an early conclusion had been reached that many services would be simply not viable as currently constituted if cuts of the scale currently envisaged were imposed.  Therefore, in a number of cases collaboration with another Council’s  service would provide the necessary resilience and quality of service. 

 

The Head of Service also advised that of importance was the fact that should the other Council mergers proceed but the Vale continue as currently constituted it would then be one of the smallest Councils in Wales which could reduce its influence on critically important matters such as taking forward the City Region Agenda. This this would mean that the interests of residents and businesses could lack effective representation.  Should an Expression of Interest for voluntary merger be submitted to WG their initial response would be known in January 2015 and should the  response be a positive one it would introduce a welcome certainty into planning for the future.  In contrast, if the Council decided to simply await future developments there was a danger that continuing in limbo would jeopardise the Council’s ability to function effectively.

 

Since the report to Council on 29th September, 2014 there discussions had taken place with both Bridgend and Cardiff Councils on the issue with it being considered the best option for the way forward to be for a voluntary merger with Bridgend Council as this would provide the best outcome for both the Vale and Bridgend.

The Head of service subsequently highlighted some of the reasons for a Vale / Bridgend merger as outlined below

 

Bridgend and the Vale Council areas are of a similar size. Bridgend has a population of over 139,000 and the Vale just under 127,000. The resultant new Council would have a population of circa 266,000, which is large enough to benefit from economies of scale and provide resilience, and compares favourably with the populations of the other proposed merged Councils.

 

The similarity in size between Bridgend and the Vale is more likely to lead to an equitable distribution of resources across the area of the new Council than would be the case should the merging councils be significantly different in size and consequently influence.  In addition, where the size of merging councils is similar, a new Council is more likely to adopt best practice from whichever of its predecessor Councils demonstrates it (or indeed use best practice from elsewhere). Where a single large Council dominates, there is a significant risk that the practice that is adopted is the one carried out by the majority from the dominant Council and this quite frequently will not be the most effective and efficient means of delivery.

 

A merged Bridgend/Vale Council, whilst sufficiently large to be sustainable, will not be so large it becomes too distant from the citizens it serves. It will not be necessary to institute elaborate sub-structures for service delivery to try and preserve some sense of place and make service delivery sensitive to the needs of the local population. The size will also mean the Council will be able to innovate and yet be agile enough to implement that change quickly.

 

There is also likely to be, in view of the similarities with Bridgend set out below, significant commonality in the nature of the challenges, opportunities and problems experienced and the nature of service delivery and key policies. This bodes well for driving through efficiencies in service delivery. It is also likely to assist in preserving the identity of the area as well as promoting regeneration activity, formulating and implementing planning policy, and delivering transport services.

 

The nature of the areas of Bridgend and the Vale is similar in that both have significant rural areas, small distinct towns and villages, coastal towns and administrative centres and share a heritage coast. In terms of population density the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend both have about 500 people per sq.km.

 

The Vale has 53 km of coastline, of which 19 km is Heritage Coast that connects with the Heritage Coast within Bridgend.  It has a very similar housing need to Bridgend, and the town centres of both the Vale and Bridgend face competition from new forms of retailing and the draw of the capital city of Cardiff.  Both Bridgend and the Vale Councils also generate significant commuter traffic by road and rail into the capital city and day trip traffic to areas such as Barry Island, Porthcawl and the coastal strip.

 

There are particularly strong links between the population in the western Vale with Bridgend, in terms of access to services including health, retailing and recreation.

 

A merged Bridgend/Vale Council would still be within the Cardiff travel to work area and the merger could assist in transport/highway planning for the existing Bridgend and Vale areas. The Vale of Glamorgan railway line links Bridgend through the Vale to Cardiff. Bus Services similarly also link Bridgend and the Vale to Cardiff.

 

With the advent of the Cardiff Capital City region, the importance of transport, economic development and infrastructure is already being driven forward at a regional level, and the Vale merging with Bridgend is not, as a consequence seen as disadvantageous. Indeed, the commonality of issues between Bridgend and the Vale could be viewed as a strength and a key opportunity.  The new merged council would also need to work with Cardiff, and this resultant collaboration could be more beneficial than just a merger of Cardiff with the Vale.

 

With regard to education, the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend are in the Central South Consortium, together with Cardiff, RCT and Merthyr. Consequently, there are strong links between the Councils in education.  Performance and prospects for improvement following the last full Estyn inspections of the Vale and Bridgend were judged by Estyn to be of the same level (adequate).

 

Bridgend and the Vale are in the same Police Basic Command Unit (BCU) and consequently a merger of the Vale and Bridgend councils would facilitate joint working with the police on community safety and related issues.  Discussions are already in place to examine the benefits of merging the Vale and Bridgend Community Safety teams.

 

With regard to integration programmes for Social Services and Health, merger with Bridgend would mean that the new local authority area would straddle 2 Health Boards, Cardiff and Vale UHB and Abertawe Bro Morgannwg (ABM) UHB. It is acknowledged that this may pose some challenges but it is not foreseen that managing relationships with 2 Health Boards will be especially onerous. It should be noted that major hospital services are already planned on a regional scale through the South Wales Programme; that significant numbers of Western Vale residents depend on the provision of hospital and some other health services in Bridgend, which is covered by ABM UHB;  and that for community and primary health services (the most important relationship for adult social care), both Cardiff/Vale and ABM UHBs operate a locality structure within which the Vale and Bridgend have locality status. Consequently, a merger of Bridgend and the Vale should not pose insurmountable difficulties either for the new Council or the Health Boards. Indeed, it will offer opportunities to learn and share best practice on a wider scale than would be achieved from working within a single Health Board.

 

A significant opportunity would exist in that whilst Bridgend has transferred its housing stock, the Vale still owns its stock and operates a Housing Revenue Account. The new Council would thus be able to address its housing problems either directly with using its own stock or through a strong range of Housing Associations.

 

The management structures of Bridgend and the Vale Councils are close in size and have similar cultures.

 

The Vale Council also already had established relationships and joint working with Bridgend which would assist in a merger.  Bridgend and the Vale shared a single internal audit service which had proved successful. The Vale’s Civil Parking Enforcement role was provided by officers working for Bridgend, and the Vale’s CCTV service was in the process of being transferred for delivery by Bridgend. The Vale and Bridgend, in addition to Cardiff, were also involved in a joint Regulatory Services merger.

 

The Leader of the Council stated that in relation to a merger he had originally been of the view that the Vale of Glamorgan should stand alone.  However, since having had discussions and having been at various meetings with WG Ministers, it had been confirmed that Local Government Re-organisation would be taking place whether Councils 'liked it or not’. As a result, he had therefore considered that a voluntary merger should be pursued based on the reasons outlined above.  The Council could  consider merging voluntarily with other neighbouring authorities i.e. Cardiff and RCT however, with Bridgend also being a  sister authority and for the reasons outlined above, those contained within the report and the fact that the Vale Council had already established a number of collaborative arrangements with Bridgend, a merger with Bridgend was considered the preferred option.  Similarly, Bridgend had advised that their Council would also prefer to merge with the Vale.  The Leader further informed the Committee that he had also been in discussions with the Cardiff and Vale UHB and the Police Commissioner who were happy for the Vale to pursue this course of action. 

 

At this point, the Leader advised that the Williams Report had been written on the basis of the current regional health footprint but that  having spoken to Health Authority colleagues there was a South Wales Programme which was currently looking at hospitals on a different basis. It was also important to note that a number of residents in the Western Vale actually attended the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend.  The reason he stated that the health boundaries had been considered important by the Williams Commission and should be worked around was due to the fact that the Health service had undergone boundary changes themselves just before the report was commissioned and he had been informed that it had been considered inappropriate for Health boundaries to be changed again so soon after.. 

 

In response to a concern that Bridgend was predominantly a Labour Administration and the Vale alternated on a regular basis between parties, it was also accepted that Cardiff and RCT were predominantly Labour and politics aside the reasons for merging with Bridgend were sound.  Giving the response to a question, a Member of the Committee as to the issue of elections not being held until 2018 and that this would allow Members of the current authorities’ terms of office to be for six years as opposed to four years and as whether this was democratic, the Leader advised that the Council’s had no involvement in this, it was purely the Welsh Government’s requirement.  A number of Members on the Committee actually also informed the Leader that they lived in the Western Vale and would attend Bridgend Hospital as opposed to Llandough and Cardiff.  Representatives from the Town and Community Councils advised that they were aware that Community Councils in the Western Vale also appeared to have a closer affinity with Bridgend.

 

Reference by Members was also made to the number of Elected Members for the residents of the Vale and that under the reorganisation proposals a new Council would be required to have a maximum of 75 Members.  In referring to this the Leader advised that with regard to the current arrangements, Cardiff currently had 75 Elected Members and the Vale had 47, whereas Bridgend had 54 which was more similar in structure to the Vale.  A Community Council Representative further reiterated the role of Town and Community Councils and the similarity in numbers with Bridgend as opposed to Cardiff where there were only a small number of Community Councils.  Reference was also made to the current Charter that had been agreed with the Vale Council and its Town and Community Councils and the need for this to be preserved.  Following a question as to whether Bridgend Council also had an agreed charter with its Town and Community Councils the Democratic and Scrutiny Services Officer agreed to make enquiries and report back to Members in due  course. 

 

The majority of the representatives of the Town and Community Councils and Vale elected Members present at the meeting, expressed the view that having heard all the reasons for and against exploring a merger with Bridgend Council the case in favour  was more than evident.  The reshaping services agenda was also an important factor here and Bridgend had a similar makeup to the Vales with regard to Town and Community Council arrangements.  An Elected Member of the Vale Council also advised that having had dealings with Cardiff Council on a number of occasions themselves these had been somewhat negative and they would personally prefer to pursue a merger with the Bridgend Authority.

 

In response to a further question as to whether the Council knew how Welsh Assembly funding was to be shared for such a merger, the Leader advised that this detail had not yet been provided to Councils.

 

Following the debate and having fully considered the report and the evidence and views presented it was subsequently

 

RECOMMENDED - T H A T Cabinet be informed of the Community Liaison Committee’s support for a merger with Bridgend Council.

 

Reason for recommendation

 

In view of the contents of the report and the evidence, information and discussion at the meeting. 

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