Third time a charm?

Janet Finch-Saunders discusses new proposals for local government reform

The Green Paper brought forward by the Cabinet Secretary this week represents the third different set of proposals for local government reform in Wales in just two years.

Each of the last three Local Government Secretaries have published their own designs for the future makeup of our local authorities – all markedly different, yet all with the same key flaw: tunnel vision.

The narrow-mindedness of Welsh Labour in thinking it can impose top-down reform on local government has meant a lack of engagement and proper consultation with the sector itself, leading to sporadic and eclectic reorganisation proposals which have left many within this level of governance left to simply think ‘what next?’.

Of course, putting forward such a variety of controversial and short-lived proposals in such a short space of time is bound to reduce confidence in the Welsh Government – after the controversial map proposing a reduction to just eight or nine councils in the Fourth Assembly, local authorities were assured in 2016 that there would be ‘stability’ in the sector for at least ten years. Stability, it is important to emphasise, which is crucial in enabling forward planning and budgeting, to secure out vital services, against a backdrop of year-on-year cuts to the local government settlement.

Yet this assurance from Welsh Labour has been obliterated by the proposals last week from the new Cabinet Secretary, Alun Davies AM, to cut the number of councils to ten via the potential of forced mergers.

His Green Paper outlines three options, but the direction he favours is clear, and forced mergers, it seems, are back on the table once more.

Of course, we know that the current situation facing local government unsustainable. Increased pressures on social services, in particular, are set to impact even more greatly on the squeezed budgets of our local authorities over the coming years.

Speaking to local authority leaders and chief executives, it is clear that most do not want to merge with neighbouring authorities. Each local authority enjoys its own unique identity and challenges – from our proud tourism sector in Conwy, to the boom of our capital city in Cardiff, and the beautiful Vale of Glamorgan.

What I am told, time and again, by elected members and council officials, is that the funding for local government in Wales is grossly unfair – particularly to councils with a high proportion of rurality.

The funding formula used to calculate how Welsh Government money is split amongst the 22 authorities was last overhauled almost twenty years ago.

How Wales has changed since then!

Some of the calculations involved even use data from the 1991 and 2001 censuses. A fairer funding settlement – outlined for three or more years – coupled with a period of guaranteed stability within the sector, would allow councillors and officials to plan service provision and budgets in the longer term, ensuring far greater service security and, by default, quality.

Because, after all, isn’t high quality service provision what local government is all about? Disappointingly, the Green Paper contains no mention of measures to increase local transparency or accountability to local taxpayers, and nothing about improving the quality of service to local residents. These must be the priorities going forward for the Welsh Government, and can be achieved through fairer funding.

Top-down local government restructuring, likely to be time-consuming, upfront expensive and divert resources away from other priorities. Whilst a comprehensive and updated review of the funding formula, by comparison, would cost next to nothing, yet would enable councils to make the much-needed changes to their service planning – which is ultimately what this debate is all about.

If councils want to work together, and have the backing of their residents, then voluntary mergers will work. Yet top-down diktat is rarely successful, and listening to those in the sector – those calling for security and parity in their funding – could save the Welsh Labour Government an awful lot of time, money, and red faces!

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