Does Wales actually want local government? If so, how large can local authorities be before they cease to be local? The Assembly should consider these questions carefully before deciding how to respond to the Williams Commission’s proposal, being made today, to reduce the number of Welsh unitary authorities from the current 22.
This might be the Assembly’s most important decision to date. Apart from an abortive reorganisation of the health service, it has done nothing revolutionary in terms of service delivery. Here is the chance to make a fundamental change. The temptation to do something different simply for the sake of doing something different may be hard to resist.
Moreover, becoming the only country in the EU without local government that is meaningfully local would certainly be different.
Part of the Assembly’s problem is a lack of organisational or ‘institutional’ memory. This is inevitable in a relatively new organisation. However, ithas been accentuated by a high turnover of members. This is not picking on the Assembly alone. The same may is probably true of Welsh local government these days. For instance, only two members of Cardiff’s new unitary authority first elected in 1995 are still serving.
A politics student looking for a subject for a PhD thesis might usefully study this recent phenomenon further. But the main point is that few who were involved in the last reorganisation in the mid 1990s are still active in public life. It might be useful, therefore, to remind people how we ended up with the current structure.
There was almost universal agreement that the previous two-tier system, the brainchild of the Heath Government and established in 1974, had to go. In Wales we had eight county councils and 37 district councils. They were regarded as wasteful and inefficient, with constant duplication and conflict between the tiers.
But the real debate was over the boundaries of the new single-tier authorities. Predictably, those involved in the district councils wanted the district boundaries to be the basis of the new authorities, and those in the county councils wanted the county boundaries.
The counties argued that highways and social services demanded large organisations, while the districts argued that services like parks and planning were best delivered as close to communities as possible.
In the end, the principle of localism was decisive. Heath’s counties were artificial and had never been popular. There was nostalgia for ancient counties like Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire, Montgomeryshire, Radnorshire, and Breconshire. The supposedly traditional Welsh names of Dyfed and Powys did not satisfy purists, who pointed out they did not cover the same land as the ancient kingdoms of the same names. Clwyd was entirely synthetic and the three Glamorgans were never happy places. Monmouth, Newport, and the Gwent Valleys, forced to share a council, had very different outlooks on life. As for Gwynedd, no south Walian would dare to comment.
The counties also had practical difficulties. Members and officers had to spend large chunks of their working days travelling to meetings in faraway, often inaccessible places. Mid Glamorgan Council continued to meet in Cardiff, outside its boundaries, which may indeed have been the least inconvenient option for the majority. Councillors had little knowledge or understanding of wards far from their own. Local communities felt their individual votes lost among many.
So in the reorganisation the basic principle was adopted that local government should in fact be local. Its boundaries should, as far as practically possible, reflect existing organic communities, geography, tradition, local preference, and the need to keep control of local services as close to the users as possible, in accordance with the noble ideal of ‘subsidiarity.’
The price was a large number of relatively small unitary authorities. It was always understood that some of these were too small to provide some specialist services. Accordingly, it was always envisaged that smaller authorities would group together and buy in those services – from other authorities, from consortia of authorities, from charities, from business, or from some combination of them all. It was never intended that the smallest authorities would try to provide the full range of specialist services directly.
Yet, in practice, that voluntary co-operation between authorities has been conspicuous by its absence. Traditional parochialism and pig-headedness has prevailed among Welsh municipal barons.
It should be obvious that the solution to this is not a hugely expensive and disruptive restructuring of the whole system but for someone to get a few councillors in the same room at the same time and bang their heads together
What is needed is not reorganisation but leadership. This was absent in the crucial period immediately after the last local government reorganisation in 1995. First there was William Hague, paralysed by the end of term atmosphere in the last days of John Major and determined not to offend anyone by making actual decisions. Then there was an effective interregnum between the triumph of New Labour in 1997 and the election of the first Assembly in 1999.
Since then, the Assembly has made little effort to get a grip on local government – despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that both are dominated by the same political party. One cannot help wondering if this is at least in part because an incipient national legislature feels it beneath its dignity to do anything that might resemble acting like a regional council. If so, it rather negates one argument in that used to be made in favour of devolution that, in terms of local governance across the UK, there was a need for regional authorities. That argument has already been rejected in England, by the four to one rejection of a regional authority for the North East, in the referendum held there in 2004. Meanwhile, the direction taken in both Wales and Scotland confirms that devolution was always about nationalism and never had anything to do with regionalism.
However, one cannot expect the Assembly – or a Commission appointed by the Assembly – to admit an unsatisfactory situation is due largely to its own failure of leadership. Instead, the cash-strapped taxpayer is about to be landed with an unnecessary bill, estimated at £25o million by Deloitte, for poor social relations between politicians, often of the same party.
As for the ‘savings’ that it is claimed will result from this reorganisation, do not count on them. Experience suggests that savings from reorganisations are never as great as proponents claim, and costs are always greater.
Indeed, one can safely double the anticipated costs in this particular case, because it is not hard to foresee that, like that misconceived restructuring of the NHS in Wales, the whole thing will have be undone soon after and the bill paid all over again.
In any case, given, Wales’ well documented problems with health, education, and economic development, should the structure of local government really be a priority? It is neither one of our biggest problems nor the solution to any of our biggest problems. Indeed, it may be yet another distraction that again delays us from tackling the hard issues that we have already put off for far too long.