No quick solutions in reforming Welsh local government

The ink was barely dry on the Act of Parliament that created the 22 unitary councils in Wales before the doubts started to set in.

A long and expensive reorganisation that started with good intentions but was overtaken by vested interests and backroom political deal-making created so many anomalies that it was inevitable that we would have to revisit it at some stage. What we got was a camel designed by a committee, rather than the horse we had been promised.

It isn’t just the extra costs which have to be borne by smaller authorities seeking to deliver education and social services without sufficient economy of scale, or even the shortage of expertise in some specialities that have forced councils to appoint more generic managers to specialist posts, that are forcing change, but more fundamental problems. These include the lack of a diverse council tax base in some areas, forcing bills up to near-unaffordable levels. As a result, in parts of Wales people are paying through the nose for inadequate services.

For these and other reasons it has long been my view that change is needed. My concern, which has not been allayed by the latest announcement, is that when it comes, reorganisation will be another quick fix, defined by vested interests and that we will have to do it all again in another 20 years’ time.

Of course, the other consideration has to be whether reform is worth carrying out at all if it does not produce a radical restructuring of the way councils operate? Moving boundaries around from a Cardiff Bay cubby hole will not cut it. Change has to be meaningful, empowering and bottom-up.

What that means is that new boundaries, based on a realistic number of councils (I would suggest 15 or 16) should be drawn up by the boundary commission, taking account of community links, economic factors such as enhancing major urban centres of employment, the views of local people and of course geography. We should base boundaries on travel-to-work areas, not on the existing map and we should get the boundary commission to do the work properly, as part of a meaningful consultative process, not the politicians.

New powers should be devolved from the Welsh Government to local councils, including economic development, a power of general competence, oversight of further education, and the merger of primary health services, public health and community care with social services within the democratically accountable local government structure. That would necessitate changes to the governance of secondary health services.

In my view there are too many councillors. Their number should be reduced but their role enhanced so as to give them greater responsibility to deliver services in their own area. And there needs to be a rationalisation of community councils to make them more sustainable where they exist, giving them the ability to deliver more services in their own area.

Finally, none of this is worth doing if we don’t ensure that the councillors running these new authorities have a proper mandate. The introduction of the single transferable vote for all council elections is essential. That is the only way that we can ensure that the make-up of councils properly reflect the communities they serve.

If the outcome of elections does not reflect the way people voted and produces big majorities for single parties on a minority of votes then not only are those councils unrepresentative, but they are less accountable, less sensitive to local opinion, and scrutiny is consequently less effective. The outcome is poorer services.

If the outcome of elections does reflect the way people voted then the opposite is true. Councils are more representative, scrutiny is more effective and there is much greater accountability and transparency. As a result, services are better.

These are the sort of radical changes that I believe that the new local government minister needs to introduce. I accept that we will not get all of them, but with electoral reform, empowerment and the role of the boundary commission as red lines for Welsh Lib Dem support, it is an opportunity to do the job properly or not at all.

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One thought on “No quick solutions in reforming Welsh local government

  1. It’s a minority view but I believe the whole problem comes from the move to unitary councils. They are, as everyone says, often too small for the efficient organisation of some services but they are already too large to give people a sense of local engagement with their own community. Look at the voting turnout. No-one has felt any loyalty or sense of association with “Powys” since about the 12th century. Rhondda Cynon Taf is a construct that does not have the same meaning as the Aberdare or Pontypridd UDC had. The trouble is the optimum scale for the supply of different services is different and people’s sense of attachment is different again. Trying to force them all into one set of authorities is a hopeless game, whatever number, you favour this week.
    Why not work bottom up? Start with towns, large villages or rural districts which were, and could be again, real communities, ensure they have a community council and decide what services they could manage on their own. For services that require more scale then look at the best way to cluster communities until the scale is reached appropriate to the service.
    I am not at all sure you need a single “local” authorities on the scale being canvassed. If you cluster communities into a regional social care authority that should match and sit alongside the health boards. Does education have to be the same size? Not obvious. Cluster until you have a regional education authority of the appropriate size. It would have its own specialist civil service , councillors from the community councils and a directly elected chief executive. Most community councillors would be unpaid but those taking on responsibilities in regional bodies would get a stipend.
    Community councils would set council tax for their areas but be precepted for contributions on the basis of population by the social service, education and other authorities operating at a higher level. Revenue support grant money from the Welsh government could go directly to the higher level authorities on the basis of needs formula, as at present.
    That would also resolve the problem of “city regions” which are currently hamstrung through being run by contumacious committees of heads of “local” government. They would go, to be replaced by an elected Mayor of the city region with executive powers answerable to a council of representatives of the communities and the relevant regional authorities.

    The answer to local government is to abolish it and replace it with community government and regional organisations with specific functions responsible to communities. Such a reform would encounter both vested interests and inertia but it could happen one day when people wake up to the fact that the question they are asking – how many unitary councils – is unanswerable, Perhaps the only sensible answer is: none.

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