Councils should avoid freezing in the headlights

Steve Thomas says local government’s priorities are to protect front line services and avoid job losses

The genius that was the great John Lennon once wrote that “nobody told me there’d be days like these, strange days indeed”. He could have been sound tracking 2010 since it has been an odd one for local authorities. I am seriously thinking of handing the job of WLGA Chief Executive to the actor Bill Murray so we can properly resurrect “Groundhog Day” with some expertise. We started the year talking about lack of money, the lack of salt and grit and the lack of common sense associated with the Boundary Review of local government. And of course we have ended the year talking again about these three things.


This is the fourth of a series of articles we shall be publishing this week looking ahead to the prospects for key Welsh policy areas in 2011. Tomorrow the last in the series: politics.

I never thought that the WLGA would cautiously welcome a cuts budget from the Welsh Government but that’s what happened in 2010. The calls to totally protect the NHS budget within Wales were plain daft, amounting as it does to nearly a third of public expenditure under Assembly control and would have decimated all other public services.

More importantly the Welsh Government rightly recognised that health is not a ‘service’ but a ‘system’ which equally includes social care, housing, environmental health and leisure which have profound health impacts. Consequently no one pretends that the financial challenges are not huge and the way we deliver services must change radically. That said the outcome for Welsh councils was clearly better than out English counterparts. The key priorities now are to seek to protect front line services and try to avoid job losses wherever possible.

In terms of bad winters we presumed that there surely couldn’t be three stinkers in a row? Then in November we were hit with a prolonged cold spell which currently shows no sign of abating and which has not only severely curtailed our ability of to accumulate Air Miles but seen local authority supplies of salt under huge pressure. How we are going to deal with such weather in the future is becoming a hot political debate Stockholm City Council spends nearly £18 million on their snow clearing operations. No council in Wales is in that ball park.

Should we carry on with the risk management approach, stocking as much salt as we can but also hoping that some winters will see the early bloom of Crocus rather than a partially frozen River Taff?  Delightfully I have already done my first BBC interview on potholes!

As for the Boundary Commission we started the year with them reviewing local government wards and ended the year with their plans rightly shelved by the Minister Carl Sargeant and a review of the Boundary Commission. In one sense this is an opportunity lost since there was genuine willingness in local government to see boundaries ‘tidied up’ and a reduction in councillor numbers. However, many of the draft proposals from the Commission lacked credibility and showed a lack of intimate knowledge of Welsh communities. One Councillor commented to me that the proposals for his area created a ward “as large as West Texas” at which point I will refrain from any joke using the word “cowboys

We are all aware of the political showstoppers piling up for 2011, not least the Referendum on more powers and the Assembly elections. For local government equally large service challenges are emerging. Some of these include:

  • The implications of the legal judgement on the Pembrokeshire Care Homes and its impact across Councils to assimilate ..
  • How we really get to grips with the key issue of adult social care and put in place a sustainable system for the future, one of the main recommendations of the report of the Independent Commission on social services in Wales From Vision to Action, published last November.
  • Further discussions around the potential of a new and innovative Welsh national framework for dealing with the budget cuts which has been subject to intense negotiations between the Welsh Government, local government and the trade unions.
  • The start of greater management integration between Gwynedd and Ynys Mon, plus regional delivery across other councils in key service areas within Education and Waste.
  • Concentrating on how we improve our stock of old and decaying school buildings within a context of a disastrous situation on capital spending across Wales.
  • Trying to work out how councils deal with the anti poverty implications of the forthcoming ferocious benefit cuts to local communities across Wales.

I am led to understand that 2011 is the Chinese Year of the Rabbit. Let us hope that all these challenges don’t find us metaphorically frozen in the headlights.

Steve Thomas is Chief Executive of the Welsh Local Government Association.

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