THE latest version of plans to reform local government in Wales - which will not include any forced council mergers - have been revealed.

In March local government and public services secretary Alun Davies announced the latest in a long line of proposed reforms - which would have involved cutting the number of councils in Wales from 22 to 10.

This would have involved merging Newport and Caerphilly into a single authority and Torfaen, Blaenau Gwent and Monmouthshire into another.

But the proposals proved unpopular, and last month Mr Davies announced the plans had been ditched, saying any mergers would only be carried out voluntarily.

And today, Tuesday, the Blaenau Gwent AM announced the formation of a new new working group led by Wales MEP Derek Vaughan which will enable councils to merge voluntarily and develop new structures.

Although he has said forced mergers are off the table, Mr Davies has maintained reform is necessary.

“For a great deal of time many groups and individuals, including local government leaders, told me that the current system and structures for local government were not sustainable," he said.

“I want to work with local government on a shared vision for the future, and to jointly develop solutions to the challenges they face.

"Those challenges - about how we maintain progressive public services in the context of long-term austerity - are not going to go away.

“The consultation responses suggested there was an appetite amongst local government to work together to progress voluntary mergers and increase and improve regional working. I therefore intend to introduce the Local Government (Wales) Bill early next year to legislate to enable this to move ahead at the earliest opportunity."

Although some AMs welcomed the revamped proposals in the Assembly yesterday, others criticised Mr Davies for announcing and then scrapping the forced mergers, with Conservative Janet Finch-Saunders accusing him of "playing with the hearts, minds and lives of many working within our local government organisation".

But leader of the Welsh Local Government Association and Newport City Council Cllr Debbie Wilcox welcomed the new approach.

She said: "We are supportive of any councils who desire to merge voluntarily and are committed to working collaboratively to deliver services and this group will consider the potential support that might be available should councils choose to merge.

“The key point is that sustainability is not achieved by structures but resources and service transformation.

"The formation of this joint working group is therefore timely to address such issues, and strengthens the democratic base and powers available to councils.”