Reorganising local Government

Mike Hedges outlines some alternative ways of reorganising local government.

When I first became active in politics in the 1970s the structure of public services was very different to those we have today. County Councils were the basic building block of local services and Further Education colleges, Polytechnics, Institutes of higher education and the fire service were all directly run by County Councils, whilst services such as probation and health were organised on a County basis with direct County Councillor involvement. Beneath the County Councils were District Councils which provided the bulk of local services including almost all public housing and some County Councils organised their services on a District basis.

Today we have a far more fragmented public service with 22 unitary authorities replacing the former County and District Councils. Further Education Colleges, Institutes of Higher Education and the Polytechnic of Wales have all left Local Authority control. The fire service is currently split across Wales into three and these are controlled by local authority joint boards with representation politically proportional and weighted on the size of local authority area. Health has new boundaries different to the old County boundaries whilst probation has been made an all Wales service on its way to privatisation. The old University of Wales has split up into its constituent colleges such as Swansea and Cardiff.

In the context of this transformation in the way our public services are delivered we now have the Williams report with a number of recommendations including a proposed new structure for local government in Wales. This has been met with varying degrees of enthusiasm from the totally supportive to the totally against.

What we do know is that reorganisations cost money and whilst the Williams report uses the merger of District Councils with the County Council in Cornwall as the means of calculating the cost, I believe that the merger of unitary authorities will be a lot more complex and a lot more expensive than that. When the District Councils were merged into the County Council the major services such as Education, Social Services and highways stayed in the same place. If the experience of local government reorganisation in Swansea in 1996 is replicated then the cost of reorganisation will be at least 5% of the budget of the new authorities.

What I am sure that everyone agrees on is that we cannot continue to reorganise local authorities in Wales every 22 years. What is produced during the next few years needs to show the longevity of the County, County Borough and District Council model created in the 19th Century.

The County, County Borough and District Council system lasted virtually unaltered in structure, although not in services, for over 80 years. The advent of the Conservative 1974 Local Government act put an end to the County Boroughs, urban District Councils and the rural District Councils that had served Wales since their creation in the late 19th century, with the County Councils continuing albeit on different boundaries and new District Councils being created. Then in 1996, 22 unitary authorities were formed by the Conservative government of the day in order to save money, reduce duplication and provide a better service to the public.

The “Williams” commission recommends the creation of between 10 and 12 new unitary authorities by merging existing unitary authorities with the intention of creating better and more cost effective services.

I believe that there are two alternative structures for Welsh local government to the “Williams commission”, that should be considered, and one variation on it.

The first alternative is to keep the 22 unitary authorities but to organise joint boards, either based on the Williams proposals or as close as possible to the former County Council areas to cover the two major services in terms of budget and staff i.e.  Education, and Social Services plus Trading Standards and the development plan in the same way as the Fire service is currently managed. The advantage of this is that it would be relatively cheap to carry out but it would mean effectively lead authorities and there would be problems of scrutinising decisions and service provision.

The second alternative, and one I campaigned for in the 1990s, was to base the structure on County Councils. Whilst the exact boundaries of the old County Councils could not be easily replicated this would be a structure such as North West Wales (Ynys Mon, Gwynedd and Conwy), North East Wales (Denbighshire, Flintshire and Wrexham), Dyfed (Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire), West Glamorgan (Neath Port Talbot and Swansea), South Glamorgan (Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan), Mid Glamorgan (Rhondda Cynon Taff, Bridgend and Merthyr), Gwent (Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, Caerphilly, Newport and Monmouthshire) and Powys.

The weakness of this, as with the County structure was that it could appear  remote to the people whom it serves but this could be overcome by creating area committees, based upon either the former District Councils or the former Unitary Authorities, to deal with most of the former District Council functions such as development control and leisure services. This is effectively recreating the former two tier system but utilising the same Councillors and officers.

The final option is to use either the former County structure outlined above or the “Williams” proposals but creating fewer and much larger community Councils to carry out some of the former District Council functions. The disadvantage of this is that it is recreating the two tier system and it will need to dramatically reduce the number of community Councils.

There seems to be no option that doesn’t have its downside but what ever is decided I hope it is robust enough to last. The scenario we must avoid is to continue reorganising local Government every 22 years.

Mike Hedges is AM for Swansea East.

13 thoughts on “Reorganising local Government

  1. Mr Hedges puts the dilemma succinctly. The option of keeping the 1974 counties as the basis of unitary authorities was considered in depth during the last Reorganisation. Everyone agreed that the two-tier system had to go, but debate between the County and District Councils about the size of unitary authorities was very fierce. The Counties fought a tenacious rearguard but lost for two reasons:-

    First, they were too big and therefore, as Mr Hedges points out, too remote from people and local communities, and any meaningful area committees, itself a dubious concept, would have all the disadvantages of the two-tier system but with even less legal clarity; and

    Second, it was always envisaged, and indeed assumed, that smaller unitary authorities would form the sort of joint-boards Mr Hedges describes to pool specialist services.

    There are many much better ways to spend over £200 million than on another reorganisation which will itself probably end up being reversed in a few years – like the Assembly’s conceptually flawed and unnecessary reorganisation of the health service. Far cheaper, and better for both democracy and service delivery, if the Assembly did some leadership, knocked some heads together, and made a system of joint boards work.

    It is not rocket science.

  2. The problem with joint boards is democracy. or rather the lack of it.If there is scope for neighbouring authorities to have different policies on education or social services and they have a mandate to do so by what right do you knock heads together. Of course you might argue that Wales is small enough to manage with one Assembly led policy. In which case why bother with shared boards.
    I would favour Mike Hedges second option but without the Conservative Gerrymander of 1974(see my Agenda article). Labour`s position then was for three city based councils in South East Wales.This recognises geographic and economic reality. Stand alone Valley authorities are encumbered by poverty and very difficult communications. They must be linked to the cities and the M4. As to the argument that they would be too big and remote;even 7 Welsh Councils would have much smaller populations than most English Authorities.

  3. I think it was a mistake to abandon the two tier approach, A number of bloggers, myself included, have suggested a return to a two tier system, but with larger units at the regional level taking in the joint boards and nominated bodies that once ran our local government services. I suggest 5 based on north Wales, west and mid Wales, Swansea bay, Cardiff and the eastern Valleys and Gwent. These would take in Education, Transport, Social Services, Health, Fire, Ambulance, Police and economic planning, leaving a lower tier of 25 – 30 districts to look after other services.
    Joint boards blur responsibility and lose democratic accountability, as well as massively increasing the patronage of party bosses. Area committees lack real power and would probably lack the numbers for proper scrutiny. Id rather have a proper elected system where political decisions are made accountable through the ballot box, rather than a multiplicity of boards and bodies all with different areas and responsibilities.

  4. Lyn, would it be correct to assume you were not a councillor under the old two-tier system? Practically everyone who was, on all sides, agreed on the need for change: the principle of unitary authorities was generally accepted and the only real debate was about their size.

    The biggest problem with the two-tier system was that it was not in fact accountable because no one knew who was responsible for what. There were constant clashes between authorities, even those run by the same party, and much wasteful duplication. The whole thing was a total mess. By contrast, there has been very little public complaint about the efficiency of the unitary authorities since 1995: the push for change is coming almost entirely from within the political class.

    Of course, if – big if – you really want regional government based on units that make most sense in terms of economic geography, the logical thing would be to abolish the all-Wales Assembly and split it into 2-3 mini-Assemblies, one for the M4 corridor, one for the A55 corridor, and possibly one for “the bit in the middle” – although the cohesion and viability of the last might be questionable. That would still be one tier too many but it would be less indefensible than a three-tier system with two superfluous levels.

  5. I cannot but think that we are obsessed with governance and boundaries. Surely, they are irrelevant when services are not being delivered correctly or efficiently. Lines on maps mean nothing.
    My thoughts on this are on my blog, and whilst there is comment about education, it could apply to any service paid for by the Welsh Government.

  6. It is necessary to consider local loyalties and political identification as well as appropriate political units. Five area authorities is not “local government”. If responsibilities are clearly and logically assigned to the appropriate level I cannot see why the confusion described by JWR is inevitable. The reason for a all-Wales assembly is not administrative but emotional. “Wales” means something to many of us that three administrative subdivisions would not. Similarly the Rhondda attracts loyalty and identification but Rhondda-Cynon-Taf does not. There is no serious alternative to a three tier system. If any tier is redundant it is the middle one. At a push it could be run by a prefect responsible to the Assembly, which will get the blame for failures in health or education anyway.

  7. Mr Tredwyn, thank you for stating the truth that “The reason for an all-Wales assembly is not administrative but emotional.” A lot of people on your side of the devolution debate have had a lot of trouble acknowledging that simple but obvious fact.

    You are also right that five giant authorities could hardly be described as “local” government. You are, however, with respect, a little naive if you think it would be easy to define the respective responsibilities of competing tiers “clearly and logically.” That was what they thought in 1974: the next 20 years proved how wrong they were. As for public confusion, it says everything that after 15 years of the Assembly half the Welsh people do not know that it is responsible for health!

    Your idea of sub-regional prefects has a certain initial appeal – in theory – and would be preferable to a full three tier system. In practice, however, we both know they, and their no doubt considerable staffs, would be sinecures for Labour loyalists – more jobs for the boyos, not more local democracy.

    Given that you are a sincere supporter of the principle of decentralisation, does it not depress you that the Assembly would be centralising local decision-making, first in larger authority areas and ultimately in itself?

  8. The Welsh government is at present highly centralizing. It does believe devolution should stop at Cardiff Bay. I regard that as erroneous and regrettable. Local government is important in my view. I recognize the fact that Welsh topography means local loyalties are to areas that are sub scale for some important services. That creates a tension between political identification and administrative efficiency. I don’t think a perfect resolution exists. Let us try to minimise change until we get a more mature Welsh government readier to respect local democracy.

  9. Mr Tredwyn, your last comment is extremely sensible and it is impossible to disagree with a single word of it.

  10. I share Mr Tredwyn’s concern. The local democracy issue is keenly felt in towns across Wales, with the county councils inhibiting both local initiatives and participation in local decision making. I would suggest that the first step in any reorganisation is to invest in building the capacity of town and community councils. This needs to involve consideration of boundary changes to reflect the real boundaries of towns (which have often grown to include surrounding villages and have industrial and business parks outside their boundaries) and to group community councils to establish the compromise between administrative efficiency and local engagement. This should not be a single stoke reorganisation, but a process that seeks to transfer down the services and decisions that most effect the daily life of settlements as town and community councils develop capacity. The process needs to learn from the more enterprising community based third sector organisations and work towards a high level of community engagement and the development of community enterprises that either deliver services and or contribute to the council income while developing business skills at community level. The resulting transfer of responsibility will not only simplify the role of second tier councils, but should also create a climate at a local level that is more responsive to investment and development proposals. In so far as such a change would also draw more skilled and experienced people into third tier politics, it can be expected that in due course it would contribute to the development of a broader pool of potential candidates for election to the second tier councils and the Assembly. This would then allow a reorganisation of second tier councils to the sub-regional level with the advantages of greater organisational efficiency, without a serious compromise in democratic accountability at a local level.

  11. It’s simple, return to the pre-1974 system. That way reorganistaions every 22 years will be unnecessary.

  12. With many former county council functions now gone to central government, the national assembly, or joint boards and quangos (police, fire, tech colleges, etc.) the smallish poulations of some counties is no longer an issue.

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