Local government – a wasted decade and a half

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.

Geraint Talfan Davies is former Chair of the IWA. He is Chairman of the Welsh National Opera and former Controller of BBC Wales.

13 thoughts on “Local government – a wasted decade and a half

  1. This obsession with maps confuses me and as an ex-Artillery Officer I can tell you that I understand maps very well indeed. No, what confuses me is that the map is front and centre of the discussion and not the optimal way of delivering services in Wales.
    It also confuses me that, for example, we develop national strategies for them to be managed “locally”. For example: we have national strategies developed by government, yet the delivery is devolved to 8/9/22 local authorities for implementation, and of course many of those will be of different political persuasion and may not be keen on delivering the strategy.
    Is there not an argument for a “national education service”, “Chaired” by the Minister and operationally delivered by the best Education Ch Exec? All schools reporting to the centre. Responsibility and accountability would then be clear.
    I also know from my military days that there are challenges created by boundaries on maps, instantly people look inside them and seldom reach over them. I therefore cannot rationalise why we are planning maps that do not deliver common boundaries between local government and health boards for example, especially as the demands on health and social care are increasing as they are.
    Lastly, for now anyway, if we need to innovate as GTD says in his excellent article, then why not start with the most innovative question possible: Why do we need local authorities, might there be a better way to deliver services effectively, consistently, to quality and to cost for all of the services delivered to citizens in Wales?
    It’s time to temporarily put away the map, climb out of the box and think differently.

  2. To the responsible minority the issue of local government has nothing to do with the delivery of ‘essential public services’, whatever they are. It has everything to do with the cost of the council tax. Who cares if we have eight councils or eight hundred. What we want is a substantial reduction in the council charge levied year after year.

    As for the ‘irresponsible majority’, well tough. Times have changed. Look to someone else to pay for your continued profligacy.

  3. A good description of the tardy history and I agree that it is time to” get on with it”..Geraint allow me to take issue with you on one point, that South Glamorgan reflects an economic reality. Rather it is a Tory Gerrymander of the1970s where the original proposal to create two Glamorgans east and west were changed to allow for Tory control in the South. By saying that South Glam, is an economic reality you imply that Mid Glam is one too. It isnt; the communities of the Taff, Rhondda and Cynon are at least as dependent on Cardiff as is the Vale. Leighton`s map recreates Wales poorest county Mid Glam but minus Caerphilly. Does that make sense to you?

  4. Local government reorganisation reminds me of the princedoms of old Wales, too many princes interested only in preserving their own status and failing to see a wider picture. In essence David Hunt then John Redwood adopted the model favoured by the district councils and removed a layer of strategic county decision making that was, at that time, actively challenging Welsh Office policy. Shortly thereafter that decision contributed to the case for devolution in 1999. Incidentally it was John Shortridge, later Sir John, Permanent Secretary of Welsh Assembly Government, who was the civil servant responsible for reorganisation in 1996. He had no lack of expertise, but I wonder if there was a reluctance to open old wounds.

    I should declare an interest, as a young Member of Dyfed County Council 1993-96 I respected and still respect the wise old heads, HH Davies, DT Davies, DGE Davies and a cadre of experienced officers who ran the authority on a policy not patronage basis. In smaller authorities the boundaries and horizons are closer, perhaps its democracy is closer to the electorate, but it offers greater opportunity for pork barrel patronage particularly when authorities are controlled by single dominant individuals or groups with no clear idea of what they want to achieve. It’s worse when both conditions are true.

    Larger authorities are inevitable, it’s disappointing that council leaders failed to engage and often exhibited stoicistic tendencies rather than contemplate an alternative. One valid point raised in the panoply of spurious arguments against larger authorities is the fair allocation of resources. WAG uses a formula based on n factors to allocate to authorities, but internal distribution is a matter for the authority only. With larger authorities, resources traditionally have followed the density of councillors and aggregated toward larger population centres, at the expense of rural or more isolated neighbourhoods. Dealing with suspicions about finance distribution would address some of the concerns being raised when you have the inevitable mix of rural and urban areas.

    Finally, reorganisation shouldn’t be confined to local government but to all activities at sub Assembly level including health. I agree there needs to be variation and imagination, not only with structures to enable local participation, but also with the areas of responsibility. Territorial battles and compartmentalisation at the Assembly between health and the rest shouldn’t necessarily transcribe downwards to delivery and scrutiny in our communities. Change has been a long time coming and in the words of Disraeli ‘In a progressive country change is constant; change is inevitable.’. This time it has to be worthwhile.

  5. Alan Davies raises a fundamental point which will of course be ignored by the vested interests of local government and indeed the political parties of Wales.
    The fundamental point – why do we need local authorities?
    Swansea City Council has in excess of 70 councillors and some 12,000 staff. What do they all do?
    If you think carefully about the services provided, all could conceivable be delivered by non governmental organisations, charities and most definitely, the private sector. There is of course an issue with control and standards but that should not stand in the way of this out of the box thinking.
    Presumably local government will however remain. So two further thoughts.
    Firstly, there should be a clear and unambiguous requirement to provide ONLY the statutory duties laid down by law.
    Secondly, and following on from AD’s comments, the map should be blank. There are too many current anomalies with boundaries; at the top end of the Swansea Valley for instance it is possible to drive through three authorities in as many miles.
    But…we’ll end up with tinkering again and lose the opportunity for a real re-think. Sad.

  6. An interesting thesis, and which would only take issue with on one area.

    “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.”

    Very early on after the 1996 reorganisation, all local authorities saw the need to continue working together, along the only county lines, in areas such as transport. Out of those discussions, and similar were had in tourism and economic development, arose regional transport consortia and in maintaining a link to local democracy, the four Welsh consortia didnt do that bad a job in delivering projects. Rail station reopenings, rail lines brought back to use are successful examples of delivering schemes which central government can sometimes struggle with. Where the consortia “failed” was in not promoting their value to the wider world, and occasionally within the local authorities to which they served, although there is an argument that they, along with the regional forums and regional tourism partnerships were also held back by a lack of funding. Moreover, there was also the reluctance to devolve from the centre (in Cardiff) that funding and necessary powers and responsibilities for taking forward work programme and policy development.

  7. The white paper Power to local people talks about area boards but G is right there has been in sufficient debate on this thus far. We are working with town and community councils across Wales to develop what the area board approach might mean in practice using a whole place model

  8. This whole debate is permeated with misinformation and misunderstanding, partly due to political agenda, partly because hardly anyone involved at the time of the previous reorganisation is still involved today – which may say something significant in itself.

    Mr Andrews’ own agenda is clear. He is trying to distract attention from his party’s total failure after sixteen years in absolute control of Welsh education. GTD quotes him trying the old Labour line of trying to ‘blame the Tories.’ Really? After 16 years? In fact there is no evidence to suggest that the structure of local government is the problem. The more likely culprit is the Assembly’s ideological rejection of reforms that even the Labour government in London came to accept as necessary.

    Yet there are plenty of people willing to buy into this agenda because it seems no one in Wales is allowed to say anything good about John Redwood. Still, here are the facts, just in case anyone is interested. Much of the legwork on LGR was actually done under David Hunt. There was general consensus that the two-tier system had to go. There was widespread consultation on the size of the new authorities and the localist option prevailed not because of some Machiavellian scheme on Mr Redwood’s part but because it had the most public support in most areas. The consultation papers are there for inspection should anyone question this.

    GTD says larger units are more ‘effective.’ In practice they were not. Those of us who were involved in local government at the time know that they were unwieldy and unaccountable, and in most respects had a poor reputation. About the only people who lamented their demise were those who had been members or officers.

    This is not to say that the current situation is perfect, but there is no point in spending £250,000,000 on a full reorganisation, only to have the real problems remain, especially when there are cheaper options on the table.

    First, the Assembly has to do what it should have been doing for the last 16 years and get the existing authorities to work together more. Among other things, it needs to understand that councillors are resisting reorganisation not only because they are defending their own power bases but also because they are usually reflecting local opinion in opposing taking decision-making even further away from local communities.

    Second, we need to look at the internal structure of local councils. The ‘Cabinet’ system is not working. We need to look at alternatives, or at least allow more experimentation.

    GTD quotes Sir Paul Williams’ comment that reorganisation will achieve nothing without changes to governance, leadership, accountability, culture, values, management, etc – absolutely right, but these are the very things being ignored in the rush to reorganise to paper over the Assembly’s own failures. It is a fundamental principle of management theory that ‘structure should follow strategy.’ Wales needs to come up with a strategy and then adapt structure in order to implement that strategy rather than shake up the structure in the hope that a better strategy might come out of it.

  9. It is one of those Welsh myths that the creation of 22 local authorities was imposed on a reluctant Wales by that malevolent John Redwood. The first proposal for 20-24 local authorities came from the Wales Labour Party in 1991. The idea was picked up by David Hunt who seemed to have little else to do; local government reorganisations are a feature of governments who have lost all other purpose. John Redwood oversaw the passing of the Hunt Bill with indifference.

    This picture that all was hunky-dory with 8 counties and that everything has since got worse does not fit the facts. We all wish that our education attainment compared better with elsewhere in the world; but it is worth noting progress. In 1996 with the 8 old counties 42% of school leavers in Wales gained 5 GCSE’s; last year the figure was 82%.

    It is asserted that 22 local authorities were obviously too many. It is obvious only to the Welsh establishment which has always sought to impose government by elites rather than government by communities. It is this establishment which has sought over the past 20 years to obstruct and denigrate every step forward made by local government.

    If only we in Wales would look elsewhere in Europe, we would see local authorities on a smaller scale doing more and doing it better. Denmark reorganised its system of local government in 2008. They created 98 local authorities with an average population of 58,000. In addition to performing all the functions of Welsh local authorities those in Denmark provide a community health service and provide the local inter-face with water and energy industries.

    The proposed new Welsh authorities will have an average population of 380,000; no other country in Europe will have local authorities of this size. Power in Wales will be detached from communities, citizens will be ever more passive and sceptical of the ability of government to serve their interests.

  10. Those who call for a fundamental re-think of the role of local authorities are missing the boat somewhat. When a Government announces a policy initiative, the thinking has largely already been done. What is being tested is the public response to the announcement to see how favourable or unfavourable it is and how strong the feelings are behind the opinions. Fundamental re-thinks need to take place some five years beforehand to have any chance of influencing policy.

    Yet it was somewhat disappointing, though not surprising, to hear local authority leaders coming out to proclaim the imminent disaster of change being introduced. Bob Wellington’s comment that there was, “nothing more dangerous in a combat zone than a general with a map” was an indication of a desire to play the man, not the ball. The use of the word ‘combat zone’ does indicate how genuinely embattled councillors feel in having to implement cuts, year after year. But one councillor’s appearance on Radio Wales proclaiming 22 councils as being the answer to their problems only demonstrates the extent to which they have lost sight of the bigger picture which is, after all, the Government’s responsibility.

    Politically, however, it will be interesting to see how much of this becomes internecine warfare within the Labour Party, how much of that bleeds into public view and to what extent that will influence the level of their vote at the Assembly elections next year. The dilemma facing the governing party is whether to pull this tension back behind closed doors (as Old Labour used to do) or whether it can conduct its disagreements in the public media. And this issue is likely to become more complicated by the fact that none of the other parties is signed up to this proposal and if Labour loses just one seat net in May next year, it will find itself in the rough unable to demonstrate executive action, whether it wishes to or not.

  11. I always listen to what Dr John Ball has to say, but he’s wide of the mark here.

    First of all, privatising public services is not “out of the box” thinking. It is what Westminster governments have done for four decades – and done so in the absence of any real outside scrutiny (certainly so far as the media goes) to determine whether this approach has worked, both individually and collectively.

    Secondly, public services ARE being delivered by charities, NGOs and private enterprises (we’ll come onto that), to varying degrees of effectiveness. We’ve heard a lot in the last few days about how the stock socialist response to all our public services’ ills is to chuck money at it, and that this is a Bad Thing. But the converse – starving services of money using the unproven justification that this will weed out the waste and the dead wood – is also unimaginative and wrong-headed.

    What councils – mostly Labour-run Valleys councils – have preferred to do is spin out services to arms-length organisations that, for all the world, look and act like private companies. The big benefit here is that no one can scrutinise their decision making. But they’re not having it all their own way. My belief is that an inability inherent in many of these organisations to actually do what they’ve been tasked with has allowed us a glimpse at their inner workings. In the round, they work much like the rail service. That is, that the change has not delivered on the original promise (remember greater investment and increased passenger choice?) and that these structures are only being kept afloat with considerable intervention, often financial, from their parent council.

    I would agree that delivery of public services continues in a climate where lack of imagination is a defining feature. But equally, any alternative needs stringent scrutiny and testing before we make any changes.

  12. I am indebted to Colin Jones for his reply. I am well aware that many “experiments” in service delivery have left a great deal to be desired and have therefore to some extent sullied any thinking on service alternatives.
    Perhaps it’s worth emphasising that the idea behind my original contribution was simply to suggest that maybe some serious deep thinking is required rather than a further knee jerk reaction to structure rather than service.
    i suspect that whatever number of councils we end up with, they will grow like topsy and once again become top heavy monster employers bleating about lack of resources whilst failing to deliver basic staturory duties.

  13. I appreciate the response from Dr Ball. I agree with all the points he has subsequently made.

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