Local Government in Wales – where next?

James Downe reflects on the process of local government reform in Wales, and offers some thoughts about the future.

The present is a very uncertain time for local government in Wales.  Councils face continuing cuts to funding, while the Draft Local Government (Wales) Bill outlines how reorganisation of local authorities will take place. It has taken the Williams Commission and more than 1,000 pages of White Papers to get to this position. And we won’t know until after the Assembly elections what the configuration of local government will be.

However, there are important lessons for the future in introducing significant change in the public sector. Governments can follow a ‘bottom-up’ reorganisation strategy where reforms are generated at the local level and councils have the freedom to decide whether – and with whom – to merge. Countries such as Finland, France and Italy have followed this strategy. There are no threats of intervention or enforcement, and incentives are used to encourage the cooperation of local government.

This is in contrast to the Welsh Government’s strategy, which has largely followed a ‘top-down’ approach, exerting its power to introduce change and often making decisions against the will of local councils (and citizens). This has been done in a confused and inconsistent way, with the production of a number of different maps and collaboration groupings. Furthermore, when councils were given the chance to propose mergers, Welsh Government rejected these plans.

There have been a number of media headlines about local government reorganisation saving money by reducing the number of ‘highly paid’ senior officers and cutting the number of councillors. But these costs are minor in relation to the cuts that councils have implemented over the last few years. More importantly, academic research does not provide a clear answer to the question as to what size and structure of local government is more efficient. Bigger is not always better.

Those reorganising local government around the world offer all sorts of projected savings, but it is unclear whether these savings are ever delivered. Given the lack of hard evidence on size and costs, it leaves considerable room for political judgement. For example, in England, reorganisation is not on the cards, and has been described as a ‘fundamental waste of taxpayers’ money’.

Finally, where is the public (and other interested stakeholders) in this ‘debate’? Why aren’t they involved in the design of the map rather than it being delivered from above? Where is the discussion on what these new councils will look like, whether they will get any additional powers devolved to them, what structures need to sit underneath them, and whether levels of council tax will go up as a result? Welsh Government has allowed discussions on structure to lead without considering the function of local government in any depth.

Other parts of the Draft Bill outline some fundamental changes for local government. In reading this, I was drawn to a quote from the 2014 ‘Reforming Local Government White Paper’ where Welsh Government recognised that they:

‘do not need to manage the detail of Local Authority business. We can, and should, leave more autonomy and decision-making with those who manage the delivery of services’ (2014: 12).

The idea of less micro-managing and allowing freedom for local councils to develop their own solutions to problems is one to be welcomed. However, Welsh Government has outlined a number of overly prescriptive actions such as dictating that a councillor should at least hold four surgeries a year (whilst many are increasingly trying innovative ways of engaging the electorate), and expanding the role of standards committees to assess the performance of councillors.

This raises two questions.  To what extent is legislation needed in these areas (should councils not have discretion)? And, why aren’t the same rules applied across all levels of government in Wales to improve consistency? It seems to be a case of one rule for local government and another rule for Welsh Government.

Moving on to the future of Welsh local government, it will be important to learn the lessons from how councils have collaborated to date. Our research on regional collaborative working concluded that there are a number of factors which help to facilitate effective collaboration including:

  • Having a clear vision;

  • Leadership (by both senior managers and politicians);

  • Setting up clear governance arrangements;

  • Having robust accountability and performance management;

  • Involving staff at all levels;

  • Engaging service users through co-production and feedback; and

  • Setting ambitious, realistic and measurable outcomes.

In addition, there are a number of different ways in which services can be delivered in the future to cope with cuts in public spending and increases in demand. Popular examples include putting an increased emphasis on prevention, ‘nudging’ changes in behaviour, widening the type of organisation who deliver services, charging for some services, and co-producing services with the public.

Now is the time to assess the evidence, from within the UK and beyond, on whether, and if so how, these different approaches to service delivery have had an impact, so that Welsh local government can deliver effective and efficient services in the future.

Dr James Downe is Reader in Public Management, Director of the Centre for Local & Regional Government Research, Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University. He was speaking at a fringe event organised by Cardiff University in partnership with the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA).

9 thoughts on “Local Government in Wales – where next?

  1. So to paraphrase….in an area where WG has sole discretion and absolute control over timing and funding they have botched, delayed, acted without adequate consultation, and not listened. Yet all the time the tin pot regimes that dot our landscapes (Pembrokeshire County Council prime example – lavish riverside HQ pictured above) continue muddling on careering between special measures and WAO reports.

    Who would have thought it !

    Maybe they should initially start with more achievable goals like organising small entertainment events in the Brain’s function room ?

  2. Bigger isn’t always better! Very true! I foresee the emergence of a new class of unaccountable overpaid (semi) professional uber jobsworthies – there are enough of these already in councils cocooned from the public in plush heated offices, fleet limousines and spectacular pensions. Keep them small, infighting and inefficient where they can’t do much harm. Politics and public service should be ‘messy’ in a ‘democracy’ otherwise you are facing a totalitarian state.

  3. This is the sort of thinking for which the Institute of Welsh Affairs should exist – a radical alternative vision from a well-informed expert who knows his subject.

    Of course, no one is going to pay any attention. Simple but brilliant ideas like ‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top down’ organisation, using incentives instead of threats to encourage co-operation, increased use of co-production and ‘nudging,’ and selective charging for non-essential services are alien to the centralist British bureaucratic mindset which is particularly prevalent in Old Labour and therefore in Wales.

    The reality is that there is no likely outcome of the Assembly elections that will not result in a Labour-led administration, whether majority or minority, and the imposition of a ‘top down’ version of local democracy that has little to do with the feelings and priorities of actual local democracy.

  4. Its nice to see this matter raising its head after a period of stagnation. It’s my understanding that with a Plaid/Labour coalition likely after the election in May council re-organization in the form that the Labour party has proposed are unlikely to go ahead. This, because of the Plaid deal to oppose full-scale re-organization in favour of regional co-operation areas. Is it fair to say then that these plans, years in the making, may never even be fully realized?

  5. Hang on JWR. Though I often have a degree of sympathy with your frequent attacks on centralised bureaucracies you cant blame it all on Old Labour. It was a Tory government that created the present Welsh Local Government pattern and indeed the one before that.
    Both constructions were heavily influenced by a perception of political advantage.I am sure that a Plaid/Labour deal will also reflect their party interests.

  6. It may be that enforced budget restriction for the LAs as they exist has resulted in bringing about some of the efficiencies that council re-organisation was designed to implement. The councils have had to bite the bullet in several areas, something that they never had to do before.
    Where I live, 15 years after a major report saying that we had too many almost empty primary schools, the council has gone ahead, still in the face of constant opposition from parents, and closed those schools. 15 years ago that was “unthinkable” but simply saying; “we can’t afford the luxury of schools with 20 pupils” has resulted in the implementation of cost saving measures that were ignored in times of plenty.
    Again in education, inter school co-operation in delivering courses to pupils is now going ahead. That has been resisted by the schools for many years. Policy generation is often co-operative; a policy written in Denbighshire is adopted in Anglesey saving many man-hours of duplicated effort.

  7. Rob Thomas,

    You raise an interesting point. That of the back stairs agreements already/currently being formed in the likely event of a coalition in May. We should be demanding the parties are up front with these now so that we can see what exactly we might be voting for. Otherwise they can say what they want and walk away from it later blaming restrictions imposed upon them by their partner.

  8. JOJ, we are surely in agreement that the reorganisation by the Heath administration in the 1970s – viewed by many Tories as Conservative in name only – was indeed centralist, and therefore misconceived and disastrous in practice.

    The reorganisation under John Major was intended specifically to reverse this. The animating principle was a sincere desire to reflect local preferences, which usually took the form of allegiance to organic or historical communities. Having been closely involved in the discussions on the political side, it would be disingenuous to pretend that partisan advantage was never considered, but in the final decisions this took a definite second place to a deeply felt ideological commitment to localism.

    In general, the ideological drift on the political ‘right’ over recent decades has been towards ever greater decentralisation – the debate being over how to achieve it rather than the principle. The same seems to be true in some modern social democratic parties, but not in Welsh Labour, where it is always 1945.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy