Is the latest attempt at Local Government reform a step forward or a step backwards?

Martin Warren considers whether after years of debate and discussion local government reform can be delivered without a firmer hand being applied.

Few would argue that the proposals for reforming our local government system from the current twenty-two authorities to eight or nine, led by the previous Welsh Minister with responsibility for local councils, Leighton Andrews, were bold but never likely to gain enough support to become a reality.

However, many of the objectives behind the original plans were important and still need to be delivered, if the new proposals from the new Finance and Local Government Secretary, Mark Drakeford AM, are to make a real difference. These plans are currently out for consultation and it is vitally important that they are properly challenged, if real and lasting changes are to be achieved.

Williams Commission

It is now more than three years since we were presented with the recommendations of the Williams Commission that suggested reducing the number of council numbers through mergers, based on existing boundaries.

In the ICAEW Wales manifesto produced for the last Welsh Assembly Elections we argued strongly for the reduction of the number of local authorities. We did this because we believe that public services can be more efficiently delivered with fewer artificial boundaries to hinder decision-making and planning. We also see a real opportunity for aligning local authority borders to those of other regional bodies such as our NHS Trusts and the developing City Regions.

Confusing Times

The more consensual approach of Mark Drakeford could deliver this and is to be applauded as a much more pragmatic way of moving forward, but there are real dangers such key objectives may not be delivered. There are bound to be times when ‘turkeys won’t vote for Christmas’ and without a form of enforcement there can be no delivery of change.

New regional bodies formed in addition to local authorities will be difficult to run within current resources. Clarity of where decision making and responsibility lies between them and individual councils will be required and then clearly enforced.

The developing City Regions in Swansea and Cardiff are already hitting these problems, it will be interesting to see if they find a model that resolves them and which could then be used by other future regional bodies.

Regional Consistency

Gaining consensus to change will inevitably push out the timescales required to deliver that change. Potentially this could create a piecemeal approach across Wales, with no clear and consistent structure for a long period of time. It therefore will be extremely important that as agreed ways forward are established, they are consistently delivered and rigidly applied, in as short a timeframe as possible.

It seems highly unlikely that different areas of the country will come up with the same ‘cross-border’ ideas. Some regional variation would be tolerable, but it is critical that such variations are minimised, if we are to avoid further complexity and achieve the simplification that is aimed for.

The Finance and Local Government Secretary understands these issues and will use his powers to push local councils to change and work more closely together. Let us hope that the authorities themselves respond equally positively to his approach and can focus upon the best delivery of public services for Wales, rather than the effect upon their own individual powers.

This should prove to be a major step forward, but only if everyone plays the game.

Martin Warren is Wales Director of the ICAEW ( Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales).

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