Peter Black offers thoughts on how to make sure Welsh local government reform is lasting and empowering.
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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