Geraint Talfan Davies charts the slow progress on reforming our councils
Here we go again. There seems to be no end to the saga of local government reorganisation. The Minister for Public Services, Leighton Andrews, is not someone who is afraid of toughing it out with vested interests, but by his own standards his announcement on the future of local government last week was unusually reticent. However, this will not quell the chorus of disapproval from those who might be dislodged by change, or from political parties who see political gains in making this an issue at next May’s Assembly elections. Listening to some council leaders and ex-leaders asking for yet more consultation, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Let’s go back over the timetable. When John Redwood, then Secretary of State for Wales, set his seal on the last reorganisation in the mid 1990s, it was pretty obvious that 22 authorities would be too many. This patchwork quilt was part of Redwood’s passion for localism, not for its own sake but as the antithesis of anything that hinted at regional government. At the Welsh Office he was in charge of something that he abhorred. The irony was that he left us with a system that most needed an all-Wales body to create some kind of coherence.
It was during the National Assembly’s second term – in October 2004 that the Welsh Government published a report calling for ‘citizen-centred services’ – Making the Connections. In June 2005, it translated this into an action plan – Delivering the Connections. Progress was patchy and there was little evidence that citizens noticed any difference. Such was the concern that only months later Sir Jeremy Beecham, a distinguished local government leader from the north east of England, was asked to review local service delivery in Wales, with the rather big proviso that he should not recommend a reorganisation of the local government map. The review team had one hand tied behind its back.
Beecham reported in July 2006 with a host of recommendations aimed at making Wales an ‘international exemplar of small country governance’. One of those recommendations was that there should be a ‘whole system review’ of progress to be completed not later than July 2011. Some interpreted this as an indication that Welsh local government was drinking in the last chance saloon. It appears that there are many such saloons in Wales, and it appears they may be open for a while yet.
Had Beecham been allowed to recommend some structural change rather than managerially challenging collaborative exercises, Wales could have embarked on redrawing the local government map at a time when the Welsh Government had a lot more money to play with. But it was not to be. Even before the scheduled date of the whole system review, Labour had pledged in its 2011 election manifesto not to change the map, a pledge that it quickly came to regret, and which ensured that legislation to change the position would not come until after the next Assembly elections in 2016.
Ministerial frustration became evident in December 2012 when, at an IWA dinner in north Wales, Leighton Andrews, then Education Minister, put the blame squarely on the Redwood reorganisation: “The fragmentation of education authorities in the mid-1990s was one of the contributing factors for the downturn in educational performance a decade later, as effective challenge and support was lost in many parts of the system and time, energy and resource was dissipated. I have given local authorities time and money to get their house in order but the evidence is overwhelming that this is not the case.”
“I am in favour of local democracy and local accountability,” he added, “but we have had plenty of local democracy and too little local accountability. When failure happens, heads should roll”. The government would not tolerate “the status quo imposed by the Conservatives in the 1990s. Let those who have constructive alternatives, bring them forward. But maybe it’s time to liberate education from this structure that’s holding us back.”
At that time several local authorities were in special measures and a not a single authority had been judged excellent in the eyes of the inspectorate, Estyn.
Four months later, in April 2013, the government set up the Williams Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery, which reported in January the following year. This charted the pressures facing the local government system: on he one hand austerity, and on the other, demand pressures created by demographic change and rising public expectations.
It proposed a virtual halving of the number of local authorities, because it thought that some structural changes were both necessary and urgent, but it added an important caveat: “But they will achieve nothing without the wider changes we propose to governance, scrutiny, accountability, leadership, culture, values and performance management. There is no point designing a new structure without also putting in place the systems, processes, and people that will be needed to make it work.”
William’s desire that decisions would be taken within 12 months of the report, was always wishful thinking, but born of a deep knowledge of the capacity for politics to run the thing into the ground. He wasn’t wrong.
The government’s appeal for proposals for voluntary mergers, was greeted by a stony silence in most Welsh council chambers, the only exceptions being an absurd plan to link the Vale of Glamorgan with Bridgend, and more defensible schemes to merge Blaenau Gwent with Torfaen and Conway with Denbighshire. The last of these has re-emerged in the latest Plan B for three rather than two authorities in north Wales. This was part of the plan for eight or nine local authorities published last week, but which assumes yet another bout of consultation, ‘not a final decision but the next phase in our public debate.”
The immediate response was less than edifying. There is now a broad consensus amongst the government’s critics that says, “The status quo is not an option. Do something – anything, except what you are proposing, or might propose”. In effect, it is seeking to distort the Williams Commission’s proposition that changing the map is not, on its own, sufficient into a suggestion that the map is unimportant. That is both a deceit and a form of intellectual bankruptcy that brings politics into disrepute.
Critics of reorganisation are right to say that there is no indisputably right size for local government. You can argue that different functions require different scales. But at some point balances have to be struck between service efficiency, organisational effectiveness and democracy. Smaller authorities may seem more democratic, larger ones more effective, certainly on strategic planning and the more important functions. So, what criteria should we adopt before deciding what way to jump?
The answer to that question may lay in taking a view not only of the strengths of proposals, but also on the possibilities for mitigating their weaknesses. Can small authorities mitigate the absence of scale where scale is necessary? Answer, not easily. Can large authorities mitigate any sense of remoteness? Answer, yes, with some imagination.
A whole decade on from the first Making the Connections document, it is clear that collaboration has not produced swift and effective action or better democracy. The response has been tardy and grudging, and the results patchy. You only have to look at the number of local authorities that have been put into special measures for a variety of different reasons – collapse of corporate governance, poor education performance, or weaknesses in social services. It is painfully apparent that localist passions, rivalries and amour propre militate against easy collaboration. Cross-boundary collaborations can also blur accountability. Far form being enhanced, democracy can fall through the cracks.
In contrast, the record of the larger counties pre 1996 was not at all bad. There was often better political leadership, and a cadre of effective senior officers: Ioan Bowen Rees, chief executive for Gwynedd and Haydn Rees at Clwyd were two distinguished public servants. Ewart Parkinson, left a permanent and beneficial mark on the capital city through his role in charge of planning and transport. The large counties also reflected economic realities, most obviously in the case of South Glamorgan, where the lived reality for residents of the Vale of Glamorgan is inextricably linked to Cardiff.
Some level of cooperation will, of course, be necessary, as in the two city regions, but it will be easier if the number of units is less than it is. The progress in the Swansea region, with four local government units has been faster than in south east Wales with ten.
The charge of remoteness, or at least the danger of remoteness has to be confronted. Outside Glamorgan and Gwent these are geographically very large areas. Pre-1996 local democracy below the eight counties was provided by 37 district councils. No-one is suggesting that they should be resurrected.
But there are other ways in which the potential for remoteness could be mitigated: for example, by area committees or, in urban areas, neighbourhood budgets. The new councils will need to innovate. There is also the forgotten tier of town and community councils. Fewer larger counties should entail a rejuvenation of this bottom tier, in ways that would encourage really local action. It has been the missing dimension in the debate. Those who want to see real local engagement should opt for fewer councils at the top and genuinely local entities at the very bottom, even more local than the existing councils. The message from a public that seems increasingly more concerned by quality of delivery than by democratic form is, for God’s sake get on with it, do it better, get results.
It is clear that legislation will not take place until after the 2016 election. If there is political change, post election consultation will take us well into 2017. Then there will be a need to legislate and to have a shadow year before a vesting date for the new authorities of 1st April 2020 at the earliest. A decade and a half has been wasted. You can blame local stubbornness or government prevarication, but you can also blame opportunistic auto-opposition – a trait that has been too much in evidence in the past week, only 11 months away from the next elections.