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Written Statement - Local Government Bill

Leighton Andrews, Minister for Public Services

Today I introduced the Local Government (Wales) Bill to the National Assembly , 26 January 2015.

The White Paper - Reforming Local Government, published in July 2014, included our response to the Local Government aspects of the report of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery. It also set out our initial proposals for strengthening local democracy, and for councils which are more open and transparent, with a new and more engaged relationship with their communities and which manage their performance more effectively. The White Paper detailed our intention to develop a programme of Local Government reform, including mergers, by way of two Bills.

The Local Government (Wales) Bill is the first of the two proposed Bills which will deliver Local Goverment reform.

This Bill will allow preparatory work to be undertaken for a programme of Local Authority reform and mergers. It provides the mechanism for Principal Local Authorities to apply for voluntary early merger to the Welsh Ministers. It sets out the requirements upon Principal Local Authorities for the submission of a joint application for merger. It also specifies the stakeholders Authorities must consult prior to making an application for voluntary merger, including members of the public, organisations representing staff employed by the Authorities, members of the Principal Local Authorities and Town and Community Councils of an area affected by the potential merger, along with other key public service organisations within the affected areas.

The Bill enables the Welsh Ministers to issue guidance about voluntary merger applications and gives retrospective statutory effect to guidance issued in September 2014, in the ‘Invitation to Principal Local Authorities in Wales to submit proposals for voluntary merger’.

The Bill provides a power for the Welsh Ministers, following receipt of a merger application, to make “merger regulations” for the constitution of a new Principal Area and Council by merging the existing Principal Areas to which an application relates.

To enable a new Authority to function effectively and legally from the first day of its existence, important decisions will need to be taken in advance of the newly merged Authority coming into being. Therefore, the Bill provides for the creation of Shadow Authorities for Authorities which merge voluntarily. It also requires the Welsh Ministers, by regulations, to require Principal Local Authorities which have been identified for merger, whether voluntarily or otherwise, to establish a transition committee. The role of the transition committee will be to prepare for the establishment of the new Authorities by undertaking preparatory activities.

I want to ensure that the periods in the run-up to all mergers are as smooth, constructive and productive as possible. The time during these periods can be put to very good use by the relevant stakeholders, to make comprehensive preparations for the transition to, and establishment of, the new Principal Local Authorities. As such, I want both to encourage positive behaviour and protect the public purse against various potential negative behaviours which might disrupt the merger process.

The Bill, therefore, makes provision to ensure the opportunity for negative and damaging behaviour is minimised from as early as possible in the process. It introduces procedures whereby a merging Principal Local Authority which proposes to buy or sell land or buildings, enter into contracts or agreements, or give any financial assistance, above certain values in each case, must either first seek the opinion of the relevant transition committee or, when established, obtain the written consent of the Shadow Authority to proceed.

The Bill provides for the Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales to conduct electoral arrangements reviews of proposed Principal Areas and to make recommendations to the Welsh Ministers; and for the Welsh Ministers to make regulations implementing the recommendations, with or without modification.

It also provides for the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales to carry out its functions, relating to councillors’ payments and pensions, in relation to Shadow Authorities and the first year of the new Principal Local Authorities. The Bill temporarily extends the remit of the Panel in relation to the pay of chief executives to cover all chief officers of Principal Local Authorities to provide added safeguards in the run up to mergers. It also increases the maximum number of Panel members from 5 to 6, to enable it to deal with the anticipated increase in workload arising from the reforms.

We are also taking the opportunity afforded by the Bill to make some minor technical amendments to existing legislation to facilitate the more effective practical operation of the provisions concerned. In line with the recommendations of the Expert Group on Diversity, the amendments introduced by the Bill will enable a Local Authority to distribute questionnaires for the survey of councillors and unsuccessful candidates, under the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011, prior to a local election; and clarify that an Authority may arrange for a third party to conduct the survey on its behalf. The Bill also amends the Local Government (Democracy) (Wales) Act 2013 to remove any legal uncertainty as to the Welsh Ministers’ ability to implement recommendations of electoral arrangements reviews completed by the former Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales.

This Bill begins our legislative programme on local government reform. It includes important provisions to enable and support the ongoing reform. Together with further legislation and other measures it will ensure that we have local authorities in Wales which are capable of playing a key role in the future of public services in Wales.

I shall be making a Legislative Statement in Plenary tomorrow and I look forward to the Assembly’s consideration of the Bill over the coming months