A new regional government body in south-east Wales will spend more than £100,000 next year to do the “bare minimum”.
Four corporate joint committees [CJCs] will be established in Wales this year with major powers on regional planning and transport.
The southeast CJC will cover Monmouthshire, Newport, Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, Caerphilly, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Merthyr Tydfil, Cardiff, the Vale of Glamorgan, and Bridgend.
The other three CJCs will cover the south-west, the north, and mid-Wales.
These four regional government bodies will have major powers deciding where huge housing developments should be built, with strategic development plans; and where key transport infrastructure should be upgraded, with regional transport plans. Economic development will be another role, investing in up-and-coming industries and creating jobs.
But due to a row with Westminster, unresolved financial issues on tax and borrowing mean that initially, the southeast CJC will do the “bare bones” minimum required by law.
This involves setting a budget of only “nominal costs” of £101,848 for the next financial year beginning this April. This money will be funded by the 10 local councils in the southeast.
Cardiff council leader Huw Thomas said:
“There are still some issues with financial arrangements, like VAT and the tax status of the new CJCs. So the south-east CJC will operate initially on a bare minimum basis until those issues are resolved.”
Updates on the new regional government bodies were given recently at a Cardiff council cabinet meeting on January 20, and a Vale of Glamorgan council meeting on January 24.
But several concerns about CJCs have already been raised. As well as the delays due to financial issues, some councillors in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan fear the new regional government bodies will lack transparency and accountability, taking decision-making further away from local people and shrouding powers in confusing acronyms and structures.
A key role of the CJCs, once properly functioning, will be to create strategic development plans. These will be similar to local development plans currently used by councils, but on a regional basis, deciding where major housing developments should be built.
The formation of the four CJCs hark back to the 1974-1996 days of Super County Councils in Wales before being reorganised into separate authorities. Some see the formation of the as a step back towards the days of larger local authorities.
Councillor George Carroll, leader of the Conservative group on the Vale council, said:
“We don’t believe that CJCs are the best way to go about delivering services. We have serious concerns that it will result in the centralisation of powers when we think it’s better to take decisions closer to our communities. It’s not a situation we would ideally like to be in.”
In south-east Wales, the CJC is stuck in a bind between Westminster not providing detail on financial issues, and the Welsh Government demanding it must be set up this year in law and set a budget by the end of January. Discussions are ongoing with the Treasury and HMRC about CJCs potentially paying VAT and corporation tax, and their borrowing powers.
Until these issues are resolved, the southeast CJC will do the “absolute statutory minimum”, creating the outline of the body, but nothing else. This means each of the 10 councils in the area must pay public money to the CJC, despite them only doing the bare minimum. No business plan will be drawn up, and no meetings will be held other than to set the budget.
This bare minimum approach could last the whole financial year, until March 31 2023, unless the financial issues with Westminster are resolved before then. Once these issues are sorted out, the CJC will gradually take over the roles of the current Cardiff Capital Region, a similar body focused on regional transport investment and economic development in the southeast.
A key role of the CJCs, once properly functioning, will be to create strategic development plans. These will be similar to local development plans currently used by councils, but on a regional basis, deciding where major housing developments should be built. This could mean Cardiff and Newport seeing fewer houses built, with neighbouring areas seeing more.
Cllr Ian Johnson, leader of the Plaid Cymru group in the Vale, said:
“My concern is that under the regional strategic planning ideas we might find ourselves providing Cardiff’s housing.”
Another role will be regional transport plans. In the south-east, this will likely mean coordinating investment in the South Wales Metro, and upgrading or creating new regional bus routes. One issue might be when different areas disagree on policies, like the recent row about Cardiff introducing road user charging, but only for people who live outside the city.
Cllr Rhys Taylor, leader of the Liberal Democrat group in Cardiff, said:
“How likely is it that we will be able to come to a regional policy agenda, given some of the criticisms and hesitancy that’s come from neighbouring authorities about things like a levy to drive into Cardiff?”
Unanswered questions remain on how CJCs will actually function, and how the decisions they take on spending public money will be scrutinised. The 10 council leaders in the southeast will sit on a committee holding executive power of the CJC, with one vote each — meaning that council areas with larger populations, like Cardiff, will be underrepresented.
Cllr Ben Gray, cabinet member for social care and health in the Vale, said:
“There are lots of questions about how CJCs will operate, and there are lots of questions that continue to come up. There are serious questions about how they’re scrutinised and how local people can see what is going on.”
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