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Ancient shires hover over cradle

On paper at least the transition of Powys County Council into one of Wales' 22 new unitary authorities should be simpler than most. But the proliferation of road signs welcoming visitors to the old counties of Montgomeryshire, Radnor and Brecknock hints at the difficult times ahead.

Powys was the only Welsh county to survive with its boundaries virtually intact. It represents a chunk of mid Wales 100 miles long by 50 miles wide containing just 110,000 people. It has 13 secondary schools, some with a catchment area of 200 square miles.

But the decision to keep Powys was a blow for those campaigning for the three ancient counties to be restored to their former splendour and power. Traditionally the county is run by independents. Last week's local elections saw many former county councillors replaced by former district councillors committed to the old counties and wanting power devolved. In education there are worries about the cost of such a strategy.

Gareth Morgan, vice chairman of the education committee and a Liberal Democrat, fears a worst-case scenario in which the new authority will effectively create three councils each with a chief education officer and support staff.

"There has been tremendous conflict between the county council and the three district councils in the past and some of us now fear that a new bureaucracy will be foisted on us," he said. "We are already committed to establishing shire committees to deal with some of the decision making, but it is unclear how far that will go."

The new authority will come into being on April 1 next year and the number of councillors has grown to 84. It currently comprises 10 Labour councillors, 9 Lib Dems, 2 Conservative, 1 Plaid Cymru with the rest Independent.

The appointment of staff needs to be tackled quickly; the simplest solution is transferring the Powys education authority to the unitary authority in its entirety.

Mr Morgan said: "Powys has gained an enviable record for its education service. We pioneered local management and now 95 per cent of the schools' budget is devolved. Close links have been established between LEA staff and heads and governors. Changes must not be engineered that prove a threat to the quality of education."

Mike Barker, currently director of education at the county council, fears that any increased bureaucracy will be at the expense of schools. "The county council has protected school budgets and while cuts have been made they have been done centrally, often at the expense of jobs."

Because it has remained intact the difficulties of maintaining central services in a new unitary authority are not such a problem for Powys as some of the other, much smaller, new councils.

In schools there is a hope that disruption will be kept to a minimum. Dewi Walters, head of the county's largest secondary, Newtown High School, said. "What we want most is continuity. We have had an excellent working relationship with the LEA and strong links have been forged and it is to be hoped that will continue with the new authority."

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