The penny and the bun?

Stephen Brooks asks how do we re-structure councils in a way that enhances democracy, whilst delivering better public service outcomes?

So the waiting is over, and it’s 12.  Or possibly 11.  Or maybe even 10.  Today the Williams Commission produced its long awaited verdict on local government re-organisation.   There is much to welcome in Williams, in particular the importance the report attaches to scrutiny, but the scale and speed of re-organisation Williams proposes will cause alarm for many.

To coincide with Williams, the Electoral Reform Society has launched Catch 22, a series of essays which explores how democratic accountability can be preserved in local government.  With contributions from Mike Hedges AM, Peter Black AM, Ceredigion leader Ellen ap Gwynn, and Cardiff Business School’s Prof Rhys Andrews there is no consensus whether Williams is right to recommend a reduction, but all argue that more needs to be done to boost local democracy.

If 22 looks too many against William’s preferred 10, it’s worth remembering that up until the 1970s, Welsh local government was radically ‘more local’.  The 1888 Local Government Act gave us thirteen administrative county councils under which were municipal boroughs, rural districts and urban district councils, with unitary authorities or county boroughs in Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and Merthyr Tydfil.  The 1974 re-organisation swept away the old administrative counties and county boroughs and replaced them with a ‘simpler’ two-tier system:  eight county councils and 37 district councils, some of which were granted borough status.  It seems almost incomprehensible now but prior to it becoming a single borough council under Gwynedd County Council in 1974, Anglesey comprised four urban district councils, three rural district councils, and one borough, Beaumaris.

Since the 1996 re-organisation, public service reform has dominated the political agenda in Wales.  From ‘Making The Connections’ to ‘Outcomes for Tougher Times’, the Beecham review to the Wanless review, the ‘Wales Spatial Plan’ to the Task & Finish Group on City Regions, there has been no shortage of strategies, initiatives and plans aimed at delivering better public services.  But all have largely ignored democratic and governance structures – until now.

In his Catch 22 essay, Peter Black argues that to a large extent, policy initiatives like the collaboration agenda were a form of “displacement activity” displayed by Welsh Ministers unwilling to rectify the ‘mess’ created by the last re-organisation.  The Williams Commission represents an almost cathartic release for policy-makers: the complexity that has evolved around local government does not serve the public well.

Peter Black calls for a wholesale devolution of power from the Welsh Government to local government.  A raft of powers, from transport and 14-19 training to public health and community health care, should be properly entrusted to local governments.  His vision extends to reforming the often forgotten parts of Welsh local government.  Town and community councils need ‘re-ordering’; and a rural revolution would democratise decision-making, stripping national park authorities of their planning powers and their countryside and conservation functions.

Mike Hedges sounds a more cautious note in his essay Back to the Future.  Re-organisation and mergers have a habit of coming in and out of fashion, and in 2014 they’re both currently ‘on trend’.  But Hedges reminds us that re-organisation isn’t a quick, easy fix.  Predicting savings rarely materialise and cites Natural Resources Wales as a prime example.  Better leave things alone structurally, and instead ensure local authorities work together in a more sensible way through a more considered approach to collaboration across key service areas, and joint plans on transport and development that span local authority boundaries.

Ellen ap Gwynn, the leader of Ceredigion council, develops the argument further.  Whilst agreeing the public service landscape is cluttered, ap Gwynn raises concern that mergers could disproportionately impact on rural communities.  While sharing Hedge’s scepticism on re-organisation, ap Gwynn, like Black, makes a call for the radical devolution of power from Welsh Government to local government.  She argues that the “Welsh Government should step back and take a strategic view of the needs of Wales and its people, and not try to micro-manage local services from afar”.  The post-Williams agenda, ap Gwynn argues, should focus on how services are delivered with proper ‘democratic and relevant accountability’.

Echoing Hedges and ap Gwynn, Prof Andrews asks whether bigger is always better: are bigger units of government really more cost-effective?  The answer? Economies of scale are not uniform across the services provided.  In some instances, bigger is better, while for others, beauty lies in smallness.  Underlining Hedges’ concerns regarding proposed savings, Andrews highlights international experience that shows large scale re-organisation seldom delivers meaningful financial savings, and if anything can worsen the financial sustainability of local government.

Prof Andrews warns that ‘further rationalization of local authorities in Wales will result in significant democratic loss’ and cites survey data from Wales and across Europe that shows a ‘strong negative relationship between council size and multiple indicators of citizens’ political efficacy’.

The promise of devolution in 1997 was that the Quango State of Wales would be swept away: no more jobs for the boys; decisions would be taken and implemented democratically and transparently.  But from regional education consortia to city regions, there’s a danger that a new technocracy is developing, which risks taking power out of the hands of the people and placing it into the hands of administrators and ‘experts’.

All four parties in the Assembly have rich traditions of fostering local democracy.  Welsh Labour was born out of the co-operative movements of the south Wales Valleys; Plaid Cymru adheres to the principle of ‘decentralised socialism’; the Welsh Liberal Democrats are guided by a belief in what Peter Black describes as ‘liberal subsidiarity’; and the Welsh Conservatives are thinking actively what ‘double devolution’ might look like.

How far policy-makers in Cardiff Bay are prepared to ‘let go’ and embrace an approach that revitalises local government remains to be seen.  Williams could be the start of a municipal renaissance in Wales or it could signal the end of local government as we’ve known it for over a century.


Stephen Brooks is Director of ERS Cymru

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