The Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 (c. 19) is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom which created the current local government structure in Wales of 22 unitary authority areas, referred to as principal areas in the Act, and abolished the previous two-tier structure of counties and districts. It came into effect on 1 April 1996.
In June 1991, the Secretary of State for Wales, David Hunt, published a consultation paper on reform of local government in Wales. The paper proposed the replacing of the existing two-tier system of administrative counties and districts, established by the Local Government Act 1972 in 1974, with unitary authorities. The number and size of the unitary areas was not set down, instead three options were given for ten, twenty or twenty-four new councils. On 3 March 1992 the Secretary of State made a statement in the House of Commons, in which he stated that the number of proposed unitary authorities was to be twenty-three. He further stated:
My approach in identifying these 23 authorities has been as follows. First, I want to restore to the largest centres of population - Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and also to Wrexham - full control over their own affairs.
Secondly, in the rural areas I want to see local government based on the traditional counties, such as Pembrokeshire, Montgomeryshire, Cardiganshire and Anglesey and, of course, we recognise the position of Meirionnyddshire and Carmarthenshire. I shall consult further on whether to extend that approach to separate authorities for Radnorshire and Brecknock.
Thirdly in the south Wales valleys I want as far as possible to take account of the intense local loyalties that are such a feature of the area. Taking account of demographic and other factors, however, I also consider it necessary for some of the present district councils in the valleys to come together to form new unitary authorities.
The areas of the new councils were not precisely defined, although a map was issued at the time of the statement.
The Conservatives held power at the general election held on 9 April 1992, and a white paper Local government in Wales: A Charter for the Future was published on St David's Day, 1 March 1993. The number of unitary authorities had been reduced to twenty-one, with the deletion of separate authorities for Merionethshire and Montgomeryshire, and their areas and proposed names were given. speaking in the commons, David Hunt said:
In making these proposals I have sought to balance the demands of local community loyalty with the requirements of effective and efficient service delivery, taking account of demographic factors, population distribution, geography and other relevant considerations.
The fire service, previously administered by county councils, was to be organised as three combined authorities. Elections for the new councils was to be in 1994, initially acting as "shadow authorities" until 1 April 1995 when they would assume their responsibilities.
In May 1993, a cabinet reshuffle led to John Redwood replacing David Hunt as Welsh Secretary. In November 1993, it was announced that the reorganisation was to be put back by a year to 1 April 1996 to allow more time for consultation. The Glamorgan Valleys authority was to be renamed as Rhondda Cynon Taff, and a number of boundary changes were made. Following representations the Welsh Secretary announced on 15 March 1994 the splitting of the Heads of Valleys area into Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent, each approximating to an existing district increasing the number of unitary authorities to twenty-two:
Following the debates in Parliament and in Wales generally, I have decided that there is a good case for a unitary Merthyr and a unitary Blaenau Gwent. Although I am reluctant to increase the number of authorities in the Bill, I understand the differences between Merthyr and its proposed partner in Blaenau Gwent. I understand Merthyr's long, proud history and its former status as a county borough. Its size, which is comparable to that of Cardiganshire and Anglesey, also works in its favour.
The Local Government (Wales) Bill was introduced to the Commons in June 1994. The debate on the bill led to a number of opposition amendments which sought to increase the number of councils, with representations being made by Members of Parliament for the affected areas. None of these amendments was successful and the Bill was passed by both houses and received the Royal Assent on 5 July 1994.
The Act established, from 1 April 1996, twenty-two new unitary authority areas, to be known as 'counties' or 'county boroughs', and abolished the eight local government counties and 37 districts that had been formed in 1974. "Preserved counties", based on the previous local government counties as established in 1974, were created for the purposes of lieutenancy and shrievality.
Each new unitary authority area was to have an elected council and be divided into electoral districts, each returning one councillor. The entire council of each area was to be elected every four years, with the first election in 1995.
Section 245 of the Local Government Act 1972 allowed local government districts to petition the Privy Council in order acquire borough status. As the 1994 Act abolished the districts in Wales it inserted a section 245A in the 1972 Act to allow the new unitary authority areas which did not have the status of a borough to acquire it. As the only unitary authority areas that are not already styled as 'boroughs' are styled as 'counties', this leads to the curious provision that a council can petition for its county to become a county borough.
The Secretary of State was empowered to direct a council to make a decentralisation scheme, with area committees being formed of all the councillors for a specified area. This provision has been used to create, for example, area committees for Brecknockshire, Montgomeryshire and Radnorshire in Powys, and the Arfon, Dwyfor and Meirionnydd in Gwynedd.
Schedule 1 listed the new counties and county boroughs:
Caernarfonshire and Merionethshire was subsequently renamed as Gwynedd and Cardiganshire was renamed Ceredigion by their respective councils.
Aberconwy and Colwyn was subsequently renamed Conwy and Neath and Port Talbot was renamed as Neath Port Talbot by their respective councils.