Can bigger be better local government?

John Osmond finds that the Williams Commission has no easy answer to the Welsh dilemma of service improvement

A map of how the new council boundaries could look

All government policy commissions want to secure unanimous recommendations because without them they stand much less chance of being implemented. On the face of it, yesterday’s report from the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery, achieved this objective.

Chaired by Sir Paul Williams, formerly chief executive of NHS Wales, it contained representatives from all four parties in the Senedd. And, indeed, they did agree on a wide-ranging set of recommendations about how to improve the delivery of public services and enhance the culture of leadership and performance in Welsh local government.

At the same time, apart from agreeing that the 22 Welsh local authorities should be reduced by about half, together with the broad principles on how that should be put into effect, in two crucial areas of Wales they have left the final decision to the Welsh Government.

This should not be regarded as a major criticism. The issues at stake are complex and in some cases finely balanced. But it does demonstrate that when it comes down to detailed decisions (where the devil resides) it is very hard to arrive at a consensus.

For more than a decade a view has been gaining ground that the creation of 22 Welsh councils in the last reorganisation in 1995, was flawed because it created many authorities that were too small to be effective or efficient. Until now the Welsh Government has resisted this pressure, worried that embarking on a further reorganisation would be a distraction from the main task at hand, improving the delivery of essential services, and above all would be expensive.

However, in the past year or so First Minister Carwyn Jones and his colleagues have changed their minds, mainly because of the failures of so many of the smaller councils. For instance, five out of six have had to be put into special measures because their educational provision has been deemed unacceptable. The Commission’s report quotes the following further examples of problems deriving from under-sized councils:

  • Two small local authorities were unable to employ full-time specialists in improving children’s literacy.
  • One small local authority has had seven directors of education in the past seven years.
  • Smaller local authorities typically pay up to £50 more per citizen in corporate and democratic costs than larger ones.

The dilemma is whether by responding to such inadequacies by coming up with larger councils will simply result in problems of a different sort, of having councils that are too large and unwieldy for effective service delivery and democratic accountability. Certainly, the scheme being proposed by the Commission will result in a large-scale culling of councillors across Wales. Whether it will result in a significant saving of money, as the Commission believes, is much less certain, even heroic. It claims:

“We are able to forecast that the costs of the merger could be recouped from the recurring savings in between 18 and 30 months, if the programme is effectively managed and led; and that annual savings beyond that could be very significant.”

Past experience on this score is not encouraging, and it is perhaps significant that the Commission have given themselves a ‘get out’ position with the caveat that the change should be “effectively managed and led”. However, they have provided the Welsh Government with some useful assurances about alleviating the disruption that any such major reorganisation is bound to entail, by adopting the following principles:

  • No new boundaries will be created – instead new authorities should be created by merging existing ones.
  • All the new authorities should be sited inside the boundaries of the existing six health boards – so facilitating the co-ordination of health and social services – and those of the four police authorities.
  • Each of the new authorities should lie entirely within or entirely outside the west Wales and Valleys European convergence funding area.

Following these principles one option put forward is for the 12 authorities shown in the following table:






% Welsh speaking

Inside convergence area

Ynys Mon/Gwynedd


105 / 75










122 / 75



Ceredigion / Pembrokeshire


102 /75


















Neath Port Talbot/Bridgend


108 / 75



Rhondda Cynon Taf/ Merthyr


108/ 75



Cardiff/Vale of Glamorgan


122 / 75



Caerphilly/Blaenau Gwent/ Torfaen







93 / 75



Two other options are put forward: one involving the merger of Carmarthenshire with Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire; and the other a merger of Swansea with Neath Port Talbot and Bridgend. If one of these was agreed then the number of authorities would fall to eleven, if both to ten. It is here that the consensus within the Commission breaks down. So it puts forward the case for and against each option. On the case for merging Swansea with Bridgend and Neath Port Talbot they have this to say:

“It would avoid the anomalous treatment of Swansea [compared with Cardiff which they agree should be merged with the Vale of Glamorgan], and would be arguably more consistent with long-term patterns of population and economic growth in the wider region. Because of the geographic restrictions to the west and north (such as the Gower and the Loughor estuary), Swansea’s future development is likely to be focused on its eastern boundary with Neath Port Talbot, along the Fabian Way / M4 axis. For instance, the recent ‘SA1’ development is around 750m from the boundary; and Amazon Park and the majority of the new Swansea University campus is within Neath Port Talbot. It would also be consistent with the Western Bay care partnership which has already had some success in integrating health and adult social care across the area. On the other hand, the resulting local authority would be relatively large, with a population of 518,000, making it the third most populous unitary authority in the UK after Glasgow and Cornwall. However, there are significantly more populous metropolitan authorities in England such as Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield, which discharge substantially the same functions; and being a large authority may be an advantage (it will maximise economies of scale and would give the authority a strong voice). The population of this possible local authority area might give cause for concern, but there are strong arguments in favour too.”

On the possibility of merging Carmarthenshire with Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire, the Commission accentuate the negative arguments:

“This would help integrate health and social care in the Hywel Dda LHB area, and would bring together an area which has at least some significant common features in terms of rurality, local economy and, in much of the area, use of the Welsh language. On the other hand, the geographic size and diversity of that area would present significant challenges. It would cover the largest area of any UK unitary authority outside the most rural and remote parts of Scotland while having a significantly higher population than any of those areas. Furthermore, while there are common features, there are also significant differences. Llanelli, the Amman Valley and Milford Haven are largely urbanised and industrial; much of the rest of the area is very sparsely populated. And while Welsh is widely spoken in much of Carmarthenshire, north Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion, it is less prevalent in south Pembrokeshire and along the Carmarthenshire coast. Anecdotally, there is still a sense in the area that the former Dyfed County Council struggled to address this diversity in a responsive and effective way. Resolving this might well require the creation of delivery and engagement structures below the level of the whole area, whether or not along the boundaries of the current local authorities. Finally, this option would create a significant council tax disparity: Pembrokeshire’s council tax is among the lowest in Wales and would rise significantly if council tax levels were equalised across the whole of the new area.”

On balance, therefore, the Commission appears to be leaning in favour of a single ‘Swansea Bay’ authority, but rather against resurrecting the old Dyfed. However, it concludes that these are matters which require further consultation and should be for the Welsh Government and National Assembly to decide.

It does not give them much time. It suggests that the whole thing, in terms of direction of travel at least, should be done and dusted by Easter. It argues that delaying the question until after the 2016 Assembly election for example – to enable the parties to put their preferred options to the electorate – would create an unacceptable hiatus and inertia for Welsh local government.

There is much more to be mined in the Commission’s report. Issues to which the debate on ClickonWales and the IWA’s journal the welsh agenda will need to return include:

  • The role of the National Parks, and the Commission’s proposals for a strategic all-Wales overview.
  • The role of the 736 Community Councils and their substantial reduction to a more effective tier of local democracy.
  • The future of the regional education consortia for the delivery of school improvement.
  • Enhancement of the interface between health and social services.
  • Greater co-operation between the fire and ambulance services.
  • The reduction of councillors and the corresponding argument for increasing the size of the National Assembly.
  • The development of city regions for southeast Wales and Swansea Bay and their inter-action with the new local government structure.

Above all, there is the underlying Welsh dilemma of improving service delivery in a period of austerity that is stretching as far ahead as the political eye can see – of how in the absence of sharp drivers, whether they be carrots or sticks, improved performance can be achieved. The Commission addresses this question but has no real answer. As it says:

“In the absence of a market model, continuous improvement must be driven through effective performance management and improved regulation. Data must be transparent and meaningful for politicians, managers, professionals and the public to hold organisations to account. Organisations must respond positively and pro-actively to areas for improvement identified by audit, inspection and regulation”.

No-one would disagree with that. However, it’s been essentially the position since the Assembly was established, and long before. And where has been the improvement? The Commission quotes two outstanding examples – in the operation of our fire services – where the rate of casualties resulting from fires has fallen by 54 per cent in Wales compared with 45 per cent in England since 2004; and in waste recycling – doubled in Wales from 27 per cent to 52 per cent since 2006, compared with an increase in England from 33 per cent to 44 per cent in the same period.

Yet, these are rare beacons of performance excellence. Generally, the Commission finds that the performance of our public services is “poor and patchy over time and relative to other countries”. We just have to hope that their recommendations will improve things without costing any more money.

John Osmond is Editor of ClickonWales.