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.

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