TALK that Swindon Borough Council could merge with Wiltshire has been scotched.

Financial problems are mounting up for both authorities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – and there have been suggestions that joining forces might be a way to slash costs.

But David Renard and Philip Whitehead, the leaders of Swindon and Wiltshire councils respectively, have dismissed this as speculation.

The denials came after two members of the council said they are concerned the government might want to put the two councils together.

Labour's outgoing scrutiny committee chairman Bob Wright said: “There’s a national picture where the Local Government Association s concerned that going forward if councils ask for the money promised by government, there will be new conditions placed on them across the country for political purposes.

“Reducing the number of councils on a cost-saving basis would be a redefinition of local government

“Two authorities next to each other could be merged. But it would make them much more inaccessible.

“This has already begun with the health authorities.”

At the start of April Swindon’s NHS Clinical Commissioning Group was merged into one organisation with Wiltshire’s and that of Bath and North East Somerset.

Independent councillor Oliver Donachie – until May a member of Swindon’s ruling Conservative cabinet – is also worried.

He said: “Wiltshire has already said that it might have to issue a Section 114 notice (akin to declaring bankruptcy), and Swindon is also facing 'the most severe challenge we’ve ever faced' in the words of its own cabinet member for finance (Russell Holland).

"Its worth noting that Dorset Council said of their own merger 'about 450 jobs would be lost in the mergers, and £108m would be saved over six years'.

Dorset Council was formed by merging Dorset County Council and East Dorset, North Dorset, Purbeck, Weymouth & Portland and West Dorset district councils in 2019.

Coun Donachie added: “Mergers are happening up and down the country. Action might be taken at national government level to fold Swindon into Wiltshire.

“Some people might not mind that – they might say they feel a part of Wiltshire anyway.

"But Wiltshire would be the dominant partner, and I don’t think that works for the people of Swindon. I was born here, have lived here all my life and Swindon has been trying to establish it own identity for many decades of that time, it would be a shame to see that lost”

But Coun Renard says this view is pure speculation and that such a merger would not be in line with government policy.

He said: “No such proposal has been put to me and, given the minister for local government Simon Clarke’s speech last week at the LGA conference, I cannot see that the government would be looking at that.

“Simon clearly stated the government’s ideal council model is a unitary with a population of 300-400,000.

“Clearly we are currently below that number but a merger with Wiltshire would take us to around 700,000. My take is that what you are hearing is speculation but with no substance.

“I am sure all Swindon borough councillors would oppose such a suggestion should it ever be made.”

Coun Whitehead, the leader of Wiltshire Council, also dismissed the prospect.

He said: “Wiltshire Council is not aware of any proposals to create a single council for the whole of Wiltshire.

“We suspect this rumour is entirely speculation with no substance behind it and continue to focus on our recovery from Covid-19 and supporting our communities, businesses and residents.”

A spokesman for the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government said merging would only happen if the councils themselves request it.

He said: “We’re very clear that any change to council structures should be led by councils and local people, not imposed by Whitehall.

"Our long-standing policy is that we consider locally-led proposals for mergers between councils if they are requested.”

The government will publish its devolution and local recovery white paper later this year a spokesman said the plans will include opportunities for “locally-led restructuring of local institutions, including establishing more mayors and more unitary councils".

The Local Government Association has not responded to a request for comment.