THE map of Wales' 22 local authorities should be ripped up to guard against a surge in council tax and service cuts, a former council leader warned last night.
Jeff Jones, long-time Labour leader of Bridgend Council, told the Western Mail the number should be reduced to less than 10 otherwise the "whole system will implode".
Revealing how he quit local government last year in frustration at the inability to provide modern, efficient public services, he also called for more power to be given to town councils.
Mr Jones urged Sir Jeremy Beecham, former leader of Newcastle Council who is heading an Assembly Government review of Wales' public services, to make bold recommendations that would lead to significant improvements.
He said, "If things go on as they are, the whole system will implode.
"The financial settlement given to councils by Sue Essex, the Finance Minister, is a good one - as much as any council could reasonably expect. Even so, to maintain present services at the current level in Bridgend, for example, will require a council tax increase of 7%. Last year a new administration took over. How must they feel to learn there will be no money for any capital projects before 2009?
"The last round of local government reorganisation in the mid-90s was crazy. It created unitary authorities that were mostly far too small to be efficient. If the number was reduced from 22 to less than 10, it would be possible to make huge savings in administration. Currently we have 22 chief executives paid £110,000, 22 directors of education paid £90,000 and so on. We also have far too many councillors. With a smaller number of local authorities, it would be possible to save millions on directors' salaries, procurement, back office functions and IT.
"The WLGA (Welsh Local Government Association) is trying to put up a defence against wholesale reform, suggesting instead there should be more cooperation between councils.
"There's scope for that, but it isn't the solution because there are very real dangers of losing accountability. If one council is running an IT system on behalf of a number of authorities and things go wrong, who takes responsibility?"
Mr Jones said by beefing up town councils to give them control over the upkeep of town centres, local parks, cemeteries, municipal halls as well as minor planning applications, local communities could be regenerated.
"If you go to a small French town, you will often be impressed by the appearance of the place, with the flowers and so on," he said. "That's because there is local pride and a local council headed by a mayor who has the power to make things happen.
"People who like me live in Maesteg say that's where they're from. They don't say they live in the county borough of Bridgend. The county borough is too small to make a strategic difference and too big to provide truly local services.
"In Northern Ireland, Peter Hain is proposing to cut the councils from 26 to seven, with one education board for the whole of the province. The Government has obviously accepted the case for serious reform there, and it's time there was a serious debate along the same lines in Wales."
An Assembly Government spokesman said, "Local government reorganisation is not on the agenda. Ministers have made clear that they are looking for radical thinking about improving local service delivery without the distraction and cost of re-organisation."
A WLGA spokeswoman said, "Welsh councils are embarking on new joint working arrangements across North, Mid, South West and South East Wales, pooling expertise and resources to tackle major service priorities, such as waste and back-office functions. The Assembly Government is fully supportive of this collaborative approach.
"At the end of the day, the public isn't concerned about who delivers services and isn't concerned about the reorganisation debate. What matters is that services are efficient and meet people's needs."