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.

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