Ken Skates AM talks about the need for Wrexham and Flintshire Councils to merge
Ken Skates AM Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism talks about the need for Wrexham and Flintshire Council’s to merge –
“Times are incredibly tough for everybody involved in public services right now. UK Government austerity is impacting on all services and all communities, so elected members at every level of government are facing incredibly difficult decisions – councillors included.
It is an unenviable and unfamiliar position for them. Despite huge cuts in the money Wales gets from Westminster since 2010, the Welsh Government has been able to protect our councils. While we have had our budget slashed by 10%, the reduction passed on to local authorities in Wales has so far been limited to 4.5%.
But this protection cannot be sustained indefinitely as austerity continues. Our councillors face some exceptionally tough challenges, so deserve our patience.
However, we’ve known these challenges were coming for more than two years, and some authorities in Wales have prepared better than others. Some have transformed faster than others, and some have more readily looked at savings instead of cuts.
Whereas Flintshire has prioritised service preservation and been proactive in seeking merger talks in order to prevent losses, Wrexham is refusing to talk about a merger without even exploring the potential benefits to the people it serves. I don’t believe that’s a responsible position to adopt.
Flintshire has even said Wrexham can retain the civic centre as long as saving services is the top priority. What public servant wouldn’t consider that a deal worth discussing? How can our council know whether or not a merger would be in the best interests of the people if it is unwilling to even talk about it?
Nobody is “bullying” Wrexham or dictating over a merger. Yes, the Welsh Government has said 22 councils serving a population of three million is unsustainable in an age of severe austerity. And, yes, we are calling on councils to explore and utilise new technology to deliver more efficient services. But that’s not dictatorship, it’s leadership. It’s common sense.
Do we need 22 different council tax collection systems in the digital age? How about 22 different human resources and highways departments? And do we really need 22 different chief executives, each paid more than the Prime Minister?
I’d say no. And, while frontline services are suffering and leisure centres and libraries are closing, my guess is that the people our councillors and I serve would say no too.
Wrexham Council itself recognises that 22 councils is unsustainable. Where it disagrees with Welsh Government – and with every mainstream political party represented on the commission urging mergers – is that Wrexham should participate. Their position appears to be: “Other authorities should merge, but not us.”
In an amalgamated local authority Wrexham would still be the largest town in North Wales, but its position as the capital of the region could be promoted as never before. We all want North East Wales to be a political, cultural and economic powerhouse, and combining our expertise and resources could enable that. Saving our services through efficiencies can deliver it.
In the private sector, mergers take place when two companies see they have a mutual interest, a synergy in service provision and a need to make savings in order to benefit their shareholders through greater efficiency. In public service the electorate are the stakeholders, not the politicians.
Wrexham councillors need to listen to the people of the borough and talk to their counterparts in Flintshire. Even if they are yet to be convinced, saying No to even exploring the potential of a merger is a betrayal of responsibility to the people they represent. Let’s at least keep our options open.
Ultimately, government at any given level must be willing to place public interest above all else. That means sacrificing or sharing its identity when necessary, as the UK Government did in 1999 through devolution. It also means resisting the temptation to bunker down and hide in familiar places, with familiar faces, when austerity bites.
Right now, we need all levels to work together and be brave and bold if our services are to be saved. Merger talks are needed in the absence of a compelling and convincing alternative. If another vision exists, then let’s hear it and let’s see Wrexham Council reach out and speak to the people it serves. In politics, it’s easy to protest and resist. It’s much harder, but far braver, to present a pathway for change.
Some critics of my position will have valid and thoughtful counter-arguments, and I will welcome their opinions. Others, I’m sure, will demean this much-needed debate by making it personal. Some will doubtless say that I’m not serving the interests of Wrexham by refusing to support its independence, or that I’m just talking up Flintshire’s Labour-run council.
But I just want what is best for Wrexham, and I truly believe that joining with Flintshire is the best hope we have of saving – and improving – services.
There are some things Wrexham does better than Flintshire. There are other things Flintshire does better. Why then, together, can we not see a new authority excel in every area? Joining together can expel inefficiency, drive up standards and performance, achieve millions in savings and position Wrexham as the centre of Wales’s economic powerhouse. That’s what I want for the town I’m proud to have been born in.
Wrexham deserves an ambitious plan for the future. Standing still and watching services wither just so we can continue standing alone is not a vision. I don’t want to see Wrexham Council compared to Nero, who fiddled while Rome burned. Right now we’re seeing services burning while the council insists on independence at any cost.
So please, Wrexham Council, start talking to Flintshire and listening to the people we serve. People don’t care what logo is on their bins – they just want them to be emptied. Spotted something? Got a story? Send a Facebook Message | A direct message on Twitter | Email: News@Deeside.com