Cutting councils fraught with difficulty

Mike Hedges says another Welsh local government reorganisation would be more difficult than it sounds

We’ve recently had Russell Goodway, a former leader of South Glamorgan and Cardiff Councils, calling for the present 22 unitary authorities to be reorganised along the same boundaries as the seven Local Health Boards. This followed Gwynedd Council Leader, Dyfed Edwards, suggesting that the north Wales councils be reduced from six to two. Former Plaid Cymru Leader and Dwyfor Meirionnydd AM, Dafydd Elis Thomas, has also said that the number of councils in Wales should be reduced to between five and seven.

With all of these senior politicians calling for reorganisation, a momentum seems to be growing in favour of a change to the face of local government across Wales as radical as was done in 1996. But is this the right course to take? Before answering this question with a simple yes or no, I think we need to look at a number of issues that would inevitably emerge in the run up to a decision over reorganisation.

Take housing as a first example. Surely you might think that it would be easy to merge the housing functions of several Welsh councils. But here’s the issue: some local authorities have undertaken housing stock transfer to a housing association when others have not.

The question this raises is to what happens when they are merged? You could end up with a third of the stock transferred and two thirds directly managed. Rents also differ between local authorities for various historic reasons.

When Swansea joined with part of Lliw Valley in 1996, the rents were substantially lower in Lliw Valley and a several year programme of rent equalisation occurred. At a time of substantial benefit changes, would a merger of housing departments and the rent changes that would result be beneficial?

The question also needs to be asked as to what happens to current contracts and services? ICT services and provisions across local authorities differ considerably. Many are signed up to medium or long term contracts with hardware and software suppliers. This is one of the reasons why collaboration and the sharing of ‘back office’ functions have been so slow to be undertaken by neighbouring councils.

If councils merge, these contracts will still have to be honoured. There will also be the costs of moving all information on to one overall system. Surely a cheaper and better system would be to move to collaboration as contracts end?

Here’s another factor to consider: following job evaluation exercises undertaken at different local authorities, the rate of pay for the same job at neighbouring authorities can now be different. If reorganisation takes place and council merge, does a new job evaluation scheme need to be undertaken or will people doing the same job for the new council be paid differently?

Without showing my age, I remember vividly that at the last local government reorganisation many of the most skilled and competent senior staff took the opportunity for early retirement. This not only reduced the number of staff employed at a senior level but also had cost implications on the council’s pension scheme.

When the Islwyn and Rhymney Valley areas joined to form Caerphilly unitary authority, the people of Islwyn had a very nasty shock when their Council tax bills came through their letterboxes. If Authorities merge then all Council tax charges in the area will be the same for each band. There will be winners and losers. Many would face an unpleasant surprise.

More recently, Welsh councils have been undertaking their statutory duty to prepare their Local Development Plans (LDPs), setting out how land within each area will be used up until 2026. If mergers go ahead, should these LDPs be put on hold while we wait for the new authorities to draw up new plans?

I recall the difficulty of merging the Lliw Valley development plan with that of Swansea in 1996. Each was at a different stage, and I am sure it will not be any easier with the merger of unitary authorities now being contemplated. Of course, the Swansea development plan eventually merged with Lliw Valley plan and created a unitary development plan for the new Swansea.

Apart from such detailed questions, a more fundamental question is whether continual reorganisation of structures is of any benefit?

We have had several Health reorganisations over recent years. Is anyone convinced that we’ve benefited substantially from these continual unheavals? Prior to 2001 Wales had five health authorities. They were then reorganised into 22 Local Health Boards and hospital boards which mirrored the same boundaries of Wales’ 22 local authorities. Then, in 2009, the 22 LHBs were reduced to seven. If reorganisations saved money, the Wesh health service would be financially stronger than it is.

These issues are not insurmountable. However, they come with a cost in terms of time and money.  Critics of reorganisation will argue as to whether this is the best use of scarce local government resources. This is surely a valid question to ask at a time of austerity when all public services are feeling the pinch.

That is not to say there isn’t an urgent need to deal with the problems of social services and education, where many of the current unitary authorities are too small to deal with the problems on their own. That is why I have previously called, both in the Chamber and in the media, for the setting up of joint boards. These could keep democratic control of these services as well as ensure that they are of a size consistent with administrative efficiency and effectiveness.

What I do believe is that we need is a serious public debate on the future of local government in Wales, as called for by former Bridgend Council Leader Jeff Jones. This should not just involve elected representatives, local authority staff and their trade unions. We must also engage with the primary stakeholders of local authority services – the general public.

Whilst politicians take an interest in structures, the average Welsh voter is much more interested in the cost, quality, effectiveness and sustainability of the services they are getting.

My only word of caution. As a former council leader and someone who played a major role in the last reorganisation, we should not forget the mistakes of the 1996 reorganisation. If we are going down this road again we should  consider very carefully all the options and implications beforehand.

Mike Hedges is Labour AM for Swansea East and a former leader of Swansea County Council.

13 thoughts on “Cutting councils fraught with difficulty

  1. This is a very timely and thoughtful article from someone who knows a thing or two about running a Council. I was at the coal face as a union steward in ’96, negotiating for people’s jobs and crucial services and it was not a pleasant experience. To make things more challenging, many Council services are now far more varied in terms of delivery and long term contracts, as covered in the article. However, I am glad that leading political figures have raised the issue of reorginisation, as it is an inevitable consequence of Wales just not having enough funding to deliver services 22 times, across the nation.

    Surely, the best way of managing things initially is to 2 of the big spend areas, say Education and Social Services. These 2 make up the majority of the spend and the sooner Education is run regionally the better. Social Services should obviously link with the Health Boards, with perhaps Education following the same lines with a split in the North, recognising the linguistic differences.

    As far as the other services are concerned, Housing and Waste Management could really do with less than 22 versions and of course, the latter is already going down that path. However, there is such a variation between Councils that having the same boundaries as Education and Health would be a contractual nightmare.

    I hope that the IWA leads this debate, as the topic is a crucial one in terms of affording public service delivery in Wales. If we get this wrong, then devolution will be blamed, not just politicians and parties.

  2. The first thing I suggest the Assembly needs to consider is what functions it is proper that local government should be carrying out in Wales, and which ones the Welsh Government should be responsible for delivering. The whole point of local democracy is that local voters should be able to elect councillors committed to priorities and proposals that are distinct to their areas. He who pays the piper however calls the tune, and with nigh on 80% of Welsh Council’s funding coming from the Assembly (and most of the rest subject to capping), they quite naturally seek to impose conditions, which in practice amount to all authorities having to deliver more or less identical services. In education in particular, which amounts to over half of all local government expenditure, all LEAs essentially do nowadays is hand on the cash to schools. In many areas of social care individual Welsh councils are too often too small and lack capacity to deliver / commission services effectively. If one were to acknowledge that primary responsibility and accountability for education and social services today rests with the Assembly Government ministers, that they should be directly responsible for service delivery and that postcode lotteries in schools and social care are not tolerable, then the ‘gearing’ of local authority revenues would alter substantially. I could see both services being effectively delivered by the Welsh Government via bodies very similar to the LHB structure. This would clarify accountability and should cut duplication and cost while enabling more advantages from economies of scale to be realised over time and specifically ‘Welsh’ policies to be implemented by Welsh Ministers.

    The County Councils in the 1974-94 structure might have been pretty effective at delivering key services but they covered such large and diverse areas that very few people identified with them. Gwent, mid & west Glamorgan were single party dominated; and they were continually in conflict with the town and district councils. Perhaps Hunt & Redwood should have gone for 12-18 rather than 22 unitaries, but although one can make the case that Merthyr for example is too small to be sustainable; politically and (as Mike’s piece above makes clear), forcing it into a shotgun marriage to another authority is fraught with difficulties. Reconciling local identities and loyalties with sufficient population and tax base to sustain the quality basic services a developed nation expects in the 21st century is a tough balance.

    What has changed substantially since the mid 90’s though is the establishment and growth of the Assembly. It is elected AMs and Ministers who have in practice taken over most of the functions of the county councils, and now of course the Assembly has the necessary legislative competence to formally assume such direct control if it wishes. What we need is a debate about how we feel power needs to be devolved within Wales and how far the Assembly Government should tolerate what it considers underperformance in the name of local autonomy, democracy and plurality.

    Most residents I canvass identify their council with the state of the streets and highways, refuse collection, parks and leisure and, esp if they live in council stock, housing. We can’t go back to the old towns and districts, but if this is what local govt is basically for these days then there’s little pressing need for the units to be on any greater scale than at present.

  3. This is a rapid response, in haste.

    An interesting and thoughful article. However, I do not accept the general premise that if things are fraught with difficulty, they should not be tackled. Indeed, I’m reminded of the adage: ‘if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got’. If that means homogeneous mediocrity, then I’m not for it. The key question is this: why is it necessary to have 22 local authorities managing a population area of 3M people?

    These are the points that occured to me as I read the article and therefore represent responses to a number of your observations:

    1. I would be in favour of a Welsh Government Directive mandating stock transfer of housing in Wales. Look, for example, at the success that has been achieved by Valleys2Coast, Bron Afon and RCT Homes in addressing a wide range of housing / social issues, leading me to conclude that housing-led regeneration by mutuals should be occuring pan-Wales.

    2. Proactive and intelligent procurement (as per i2i best practice) would address the procurement dinosaur. There is much that could be done and should be done to improve procurement of services and provisions in Wales (worth approx. £5Bn) that could benefit local economies throughout Wales and yet it is low on local authorities agendas. They do not see the potential for Local Economic Development.

    3. There may be experienced staff. Equally, there are ‘stale’ staff that are biding their time and not willing to engage in making a tangible difference to their respective communities. Change can represent fresh thinking / fresh ideas and new dynamism.

    4. The reference to LDPs does not acknowledge the importance (in my opinion) of functional economic areas (FEMAs), otherwise known as city-regions which for large parts of Wales represent ‘the geography of everyday life’. Equally, I recognise the importance of rural areas such as the Powys Growth Zone.

    5. Governance is a big issue and needs to be thoroughly addressed. Equally, it represents an opportunity for innovation pan Wales. If there were mistakes in 1996, let’s not make them again. On the contrary, borrowing a phrase from Professor Kevin Morgan of Cardiff University, ‘good practice is a bad traveller’ so let’s adopt good / best practice in undertaking a re-organisation with private / third sector Board representation.

  4. I agree with all of this. There is too much talk about mergers of local authorities from those who have only limited knowledge of the implications.

    I was involved in both the reorganisations of 1974 and 1996. I can confirm that both were extremely disruptive and costly. For the reasons outlined, the situation is probably even more complex today.

    I would be skeptical about the Welsh Government wanting to take on direct responsibility for the big services like education and social care. No one to blame if anything goes wrong.

  5. I agree with Robert Chapman that the transfer of all housing stock from local authorities to registered social landlords would be beneficial for all concerned. It would create a strong independent social housing sector, it would facilitate increased investment in the housing stock by allowing private capital to be drawn in, and it would benefit tenants. It would also create another force in regeneration. As was pointed out in an IWA report on social housing some years ago, this would allow local authorities to concentrate on a strategic role, measuring and planning overall housing needs – a task that needs to be done on a regional rather than local basis. And before anyone starts saying that stock transfer is some kind of unacceptable privatisation – let’s make it clear that it would amount to the socialisation of housing, but formally, and healthily, outwith the confines of the state. There may be other areas of activity where the same principles could apply.

  6. Robert,

    1. Stock transfer has been successful to an extent, but only because they can borrow money to invest. It is a little complicated because some Councils have kept housing in-house, some have stock transfer models and there are also Housing Associations separate from both who cover more than one Council area. However, there is clearly direction needed from the Welsh Government.
    2. There is a lot of talk about clever procurement, but it has to involve the current clients before the tender is sent out. This has not always been the case, with poor results. Also, let’s learn from nations like Germany where they have kept the vast majority of local spend local, while still staying within European law.
    3. Change always offers the opportunity to pass on new ideas but as Mike Hedges stated, Councils have to ensure that critical expertise is not all lost through managed redundancy. We are currently losing many experienced staff to meet the cuts and it is already causing problems.
    4. Agreed. It’s not just about the South Eeast. It’s about all of Wales.
    5. Good practice is rarely passed on and from my experience, middle managers who actually deliver services are better consultees than their senior managers. I also agree with Malcolm that managing Education of Housing at National level is not feasable, for reasons of delivery as well as democracy.

  7. Some very interesting points in both the article and the comments. Clearly merging or reorganising local authorities has its advantages and disadvantages. One of the issues I find frustrating about having 22 local authorities is there being such (often needless) jobs / roles as 22 education advisers for each school subject taught. I am a teacher of Religious Studies and I find it so frustrating that there are so many advisers and SACREs (Standing Advisory Committee for Religious Education) in Wales using up public money that should be used in the classroom. Similar structures are in place in other subjects too. Why are there not less of these advisers and committees swallowing up public money when schools are working on very tight budgets and often can not even afford to photocopy worksheets for our pupils?

    This could also apply to other areas of Local Government. Do we need 22 of each type of officer, committee, roles etc. Would it not make more sense to have, for example one officer / adviser etc. covering North Wales, one for Mid Wales, One for South Wales valleys, One for Cardiff and Newport etc. Perhaps keeping the 22 local authority areas for local issues (like council tax collection, housing etc.) and sharing other areas (like those mentioned above) would be a more cost effective method. I would be interested to hear other views on this.

  8. There is even going to be some difficulty bringing together Education Authorities; I have never yet come across two LEAs with the same school funding formula and it is quite clear that different Authorities apply different definitions to Special Educational Needs. Look at Ceredigion… it’s clear from the high percentage of SEN pupils in relatively affluent schools that SEN designation is being used to target funding to improving outcomes amongst the general school population… a very broad application of “School Action” and “School Action Plus”. This may be effective; I don’t know, but it is certainly different.

    So I would say that Leighton Andrew’s determination to amalgamate Education Authorities may be more problematic than he thinks. Where I do believe that the Welsh Government should intervene is in standardisation of funding formulae and some practices. At the moment we in Wales don’t really know what works because there is insufficient knowledge and analysis of Education practices. Some years ago I wrote to Leighton Andrews to ask why a certain Authority funded schools in such an illogical manner… the reply was (I paraphrase) “Nothing to do with us!”.

    Whilst some LEAs are updating their school funding formulae to best direct finance to schools which need extra help (NPT for instance) others sit on a formula which was innapropriate a decade ago.

  9. Geraint Talfan Davies: “And before anyone starts saying that stock transfer is some kind of unacceptable privatisation – let’s make it clear that it would amount to the socialisation of housing, but formally, and healthily, outwith the confines of the state.”

    If this is the level of debate at the IWA then it’s time to close it down. Semantic games aren’t going to answer the housing problem and it’s about time the great and the good recognised that council housing has been kicked time after time since the days of Thatcher.
    Why are councils not allowed to borrow in the same way as housing associations are? Why does £100m in council rents seep from Welsh council to the Treasury in London each year without a murmur from Geraint & Co. The ringed fence erected by Thatcher (to constrain councils) has been breached and yet nothing is being done about it.

  10. It seems generally accepted that the current structure is wrong and therefore previous re-organisations were a failure. I was in the ’74 one and it was quite obviously not thought-out – at any rate in terms of Local Government function.

    Has norrow minded political advantage been in play here?

    What about trying evolution?

    Big bang revolutions may make Politicians and Local Government Managers feel they are actually doing something for their money, but they’re a big gamble and more likely to fail than succeed. Local Government and Education have proved that.

  11. Change is always fraught with difficulties and no one is calling for the big bang approach. But what is clear is that the local government system set up by the Tories in the 1990s is not fit for purpose and never will be. Too much money is being wasted by the existence of 22 authorities which often lack the capacity at both officer and political level to begin to think about service delivery improvements in an age of austerity. Even Beecham who was told to avoid looking at reorganisation argued that if there had been no improvement by 2011 then the Assembly should seriously look at new solutions for the delivery of democratically controlled local services. The failure of the South East Wales project at goodness knows what cost and the decision of Caerphilly not to proceed with a joint social services department with Blaenau Gwent is clear proof once again that the so-called silver bullet of collaboration will never work. Even when authorities are setting up joint working arrangements there is often no logic to the arrangement except that the officers concerned might get on with each other. At a time of austerity it also really doesn’t make much sense in my opinion to top slice £10 million from front line services and then ask local authorities to bid for the money to deliver collaboration. Collaboration and the privatisation by stealth which is going on is just making the situation inherited by the 22 in 1996, and which some have tried to make work, even worse. What is required is not the setting up of joint boards a la Northern Ireland which will only muddy accountability for a start. Instead we need the Assembly to address the fundamental questions of what sort of local government do we actually require to deliver good, efficient and democratically accountable services in the 21st century in what is a pretty small European region. Do we really need Local education authorities for a start? Most of them are far too small and don’t have the capacity to add any value to the process of improvement that is so urgently required to deliver an education system which can compete with the best in the world.

  12. The following quotes from, “South Wales Needs a Plan”, by H A Marquand published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd in 1936, seem appropriate…!

    ” … it seems that a more rapid movement of population up and down the valleys must be encouraged, so as to save the inhabitants of the northern towns and villages from economic isolation. How that rapidity of movement can best be secured should of course be decided by an authority responsible for a co-ordinated transport service throughout the Region. No such authority exists.”

    ” … political and social institutions have failed to adopt themselves with sufficient rapidity to the economic changes that have taken place. One small symptom of this is the maintenance of local government boundaries which have long lost their significance and of authorities which are inadequate to the larger task which need to be undertaken.”

    ” … If the cost of local government services can be reduced while extending their range and improving the efficiency of their administration, the whole community will be the gainer. It seems reasonable to expect that the adoption of regional government for the appropriate services will attain those ends.”

    ” … the government must carry out an inquiry into local government in the region which will be the prelude to reorganisation upon a regional basis.”

    We don’t like to rush things do we!!!

  13. If you are looking at the re-organisation of governance in Wales you also have to consider physical geography and not just population. For example, a merger of Ceredigion and Powys would be largely unworkable and result in big transport costs as officers and councillors would have to travel huge distances in order to make meetings. The same would be true if if Ceredigion went back into a re-formed Dyfed. While the transport links might be better there would still be big distances to cover, and there would also likely to be a bias towards the south of the County – that is, Carmarthenshire and Pemprokeshire – as that is where the population and industry is, which would be bad for democracy and accountability.

    I’m not saying it shouldn’t be looked at. However, the variety of comments posted here so far indicate that the complexity of the task requires that it be properly assessed by a Commission of some sort, rather than through the timid half-hearted approach that has been happening. It is potentially a rash political gambit that could have severe implications on budgets and staff.

    Such a commission could also examine the role of the Senedd in all of this, in the context of the Silk Commission proposals being implemented in full.
    If we are going to re-organise governance in Wales it has to be done well, it has to be done in the context of the devolution of powers to Wales, and the staff and unions have to be on board. All of which require leadership, thoughtfulness and a wide and meaningful dialogue, if these aren’t present it is unlikely to be a success.

    Editor’s note: The Welsh Government announced the setting up of a Commission under the chairmanship of former NHS Chief Executive Sir Paul Williams on 18 April. In a statement First Minister Carwyn Jones said:

    “Since public sector budgets are likely to continue to tighten, and demand pressures grow, there is a clear need to examine how services can be sustained and standards of performance raised, so that people in Wales can continue to receive and influence the public services they need and value. And as we can see from the impact of the current financial decisions by the UK government, a healthy public sector is essential to a healthy economy. The establishment of this Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery provides an opportunity for those who are involved in delivering services, those who are politically accountable for them and users of them to examine how public services are governed: that is, held accountable for their performance and delivered most effectively to the public. I will make a further statement to the Assembly on the remit of the commission in due course.”

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