Everyone agrees we need larger councils in Wales – but where’s the evidence?

The Welsh local government reorganisation of 1974 created eight county councils and 37 district councils. Then 22 principal areas were formed, and it is those unitary authorities by which Wales has been governed since 1996.

Both the Williams Commission established by Carwyn Jones and subsequent proposals put forward by Leighton Andrews as public services minister have recommended reducing the number of Welsh local authorities further still.

Local government mergers are again being considered and there is a political consensus that we need larger local authorities, although calling a reconstituted Dyfed a local council does seem – to me at least – a little strange.

The current size of local authorities in Wales are shown below.

Rank District Population
1 Cardiff 361,500
2 Swansea 244,500
3 Rhondda Cynon Taf 238,300
4 Carmarthenshire 185,600
5 Caerphilly 180,500
6 Flintshire 154,400
7 Newport 149,100
8 Bridgend 143,200
9 Neath Port Talbot 141,600
10 Wrexham 136,700
11 Powys 132,200
12 Vale of Glamorgan 128,500
13 Pembrokeshire 124,000
14 Gwynedd 123,600
15 Conwy 116,500
16 Denbighshire 94,800
17 Monmouthshire 92,800
18 Torfaen 92,100
19 Ceredigion 74,100
20 Isle of Anglesey 69,700
21 Blaenau Gwent 69,600
22 Merthyr Tydfil 59,800

 

England and Scotland have several unitary authorities larger than Cardiff but Scotland has five smaller than Merthyr (Inverclyde, Clackmanshire, Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland) and England has one (Rutland).

If larger authorities were more efficient and effective, two things would happen: council tax would be lower and performance would be better. The larger authorities (and Powys, for which merging has not been deemed necessary) should charge the lowest amount.

Welsh government data of 2018/19 shows:

District Band D council tax Relative size
Pembrokeshire 994 13
Newport 1,057 7
Caerphilly 1,058 5
Wrexham 1,093 10
Isle of Anglesey 1,140 20
Cardiff 1,155 1
Conwy 1,168 15
Flintshire 1,178 6
Vale of Glamorgan 1,187 12
Powys 1,189 11
Carmarthenshire 1,197 4
Ceredigion 1,226 19
Torfaen 1,242 18
Monmouthshire 1,242 17
Denbighshire 1,248 16
Swansea 1,269 2
Gwynedd 1,301 14
Bridgend 1,396 8
Rhondda Cynon 1,406 3
Neath Port Talbot 1,497 9
Merthyr Tydfil 1,500 21
Blaenau Gwent 1,571 22

Whilst the two smallest authorities are in the bottom two places in terms of council tax, medium-sized authorities appear to perform better than either large or small authorities when it comes to the cost of council tax to the resident.

Does council performance show that the larger authorities by population perform best? According to the Western Mail, “the quality of services delivered by local authorities in Wales is not determined by the size of the council”.

The Western Mail figures are based on 28 indicators across the range of local government areas, including education, social care, housing, environment and transport, planning and regulatory services, leisure and culture and corporate health.

With four points on offer for councils that performed in the top quartile of each indicator, a maximum score of 112 was possible. Depending on their performance, councils scored between one and four points in each indicator.

This uses figures published in 2015/16; I will update these figures when I can access the 2016/17 figures.

Council Score Relative size
Vale of Glamorgan 86 12
Denbighshire 85 16
Carmarthenshire 79 4
Pembrokeshire 77 13
Rhondda Cynon Taf 77 3
Merthyr Tydfil 76 22
Wrexham 76 10
Neath Port Talbot 73 9
Gwynedd 72 14
Flintshire 71 6
Caerphilly 70 5
Conwy 68 15
Isle of Anglesey 68 29
Blaenau Gwent 67 21
Bridgend 67 8
Monmouthshire 66 17
Newport 66 7
Torfaen 66 18
Cardiff 64 1
Ceredigion 61 19
Powys 61 11
Swansea 59 2

 

From this data, it is not possible to conclude that larger councils and Powys perform better, with medium-sized authorities taking three of the top four places.

In Scotland, the variation in council tax is much less than Wales but the lowest council tax is in the Western Islands and Shetland, while the largest council – Glasgow – has the highest band D council tax.

I look forward to reading an explanation how larger councils perform better.

Mike Hedges is AM for Swansea East.

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