Restructuring Welsh local government: What about the long term?

Malcolm Prowle presents ideas for restructuring Welsh local government which takes account of the current socio-economic characteristics of Wales and future trends.

The last set of proposals from Welsh Government for local government restructuring in Wales now seem to have been buried following strong resistance from many quarters about the level of cost and disruption with a lack of clarity about the benefits to be gained. Basically they were the wrong proposals at the wrong time and the threat of forced mergers has now been lifted.


Does this mean that the issue of local government reorganisation in Wales can now be considered to be buried forever? Almost certainly the answer to this question must be no. Virtually everyone would agree that having 22 smallish local authorities in Wales is not a good idea and significant residual problems still remain. In the future the issues involved are bound to be resurrected over and over again. Indeed last week, a war of words erupted between the local government secretary, Alun Davies, and Welsh council leaders concerning the current local government structure and the demands for more funding from local government.


The key issue is what kind of local government restructuring does Wales need? When considering this,  it is worth noting that there are two broad approaches which can be applied. 


  1. Combining existing units – this involves combining existing local government units into a smaller number of larger organisations. This is the usual approach that was applied in the 1974 and 1996 local government reorganisations in Wales. Prior to 1974 Wales had 184 local authorities (13 counties, 4 county boroughs and 167 districts) and through merger this was reduced to 45 (8 counties and 37 districts).  In the 1996 reorganisation, through merger, this was reduced still further to 22 unitary authorities.
  2. Clean sheet of paper” – adopting a “Clean sheet of paper” approach to local government restructuring is one which ignores existing local government units. Instead it designs a structure for local government which fits the structure of Welsh society today, and for the future, and takes account of the current socio-economic characteristics of Wales and future trends.


If we look at Wales today, we would have to note that the socio-economic structure of Wales has changed enormously in the last 50 years or so since the discussions leading to the 1974 reorganisation of Welsh local government, when the process of combining existing local government units began. Consider just the following examples covering the last 50 years or so:


  • People reside in different places compared to 50 years ago. For example, the large scale residential housing developments around Llantrisant did not exist 50 years ago
  • They travel to work in different places, with different journeys and in different ways
  • They spend their leisure time in different ways as can be seen with the growth of private leisure centres, the mass closure of public houses and the decline in church attendance
  • They send their children to a wider range of schools as a consequence of the growth of Welsh-medium schools, faith schools and some children going to schools out of catchment
  • They shop in different places as a consequence of the development of out of town retail parks and the growth of internet selling
  • Transport links are very different compared to 50 years ago and this affects the journeys people make for work, leisure, retail etc. There are now three fast main link roads running east-west in Wales (the A55 in the North, with the M4 and A465, Heads of Valleys Road in the South) which were patchy or non-existent 50 years ago. Travel from North to South Wales is as difficult as it always was
  • Life expectancy in 1960s was a full thirteen years lower than it is today. The ageing society and the growth of adult social care wasn’t even on the radar then
  • The growth of conurbations and city-regions in Wales.


In the light of these sorts of changes, it seems unlikely that basing local government restructuring on combinations of existing and dated units is the right approach. Instead, I suggest it is important to go back to basics and develop a plan for restructuring Welsh local government using a “clean sheet of paper” approach. The current structure may no longer be relevant and we need to look at new options based on existing and future positions.


This is a time consuming and complex task and some of the factors which need to be considered include:


  • Population size and trends
  • Trends in population structure (age/sex)
  • Needs for different services by different parts of the population
  • The resource base of particular areas
  • Travel patterns and transport links by residents
  • The physical geography of the area
  • The degree of community cohesion in different areas
  • Potential coterminosity with other agencies such as police, Fire, NHS etc.


In the light of the above, I want to suggest that a future local government structure in Wales might look something like that shown below. Lack of available information means that I am not able to take account of all of the above factors at this point in time and so the table below tries to take account of population size and trends, physical geography, travel patterns, transport links and community cohesion.


South Wales Cardiff, Vale,  South Taff Ely, South Caerphilly 620
South West Wales Swansea, Neath/Port Talbot, Bridgend 520
North Wales North Gwynedd, Conway, Anglesey, Denbigh 360
South East Wales Newport, Monmouth, South Torfaen 300
Northern Valleys Cynon Valley, Merthyr, Blaenau Gwent, North Torfaen, Rhymney Valley, Rhondda 330
West Wales Carmarthen, Pembroke 310
North East Wales Wrexham, Flint 360
Mid Wales Ceredigion, Powys, South Gwynedd 250


Now if the traditional ways of restructuring local government were disruptive and costly, isn’t the radical approach described above likely to be more so. Indeed it is, but this can be mitigated by some form of “migration” strategy.


Currently, collaboration between existing local authorities in Wales is evolving in relation to service provision and back office functions. I suggest this collaboration process should be encouraged and even accelerated. Over a period of years this ongoing collaboration should lead to closer union between local authorities with eventual merger taking place, after a period of years, more easily than might otherwise be the case. Such a migration approach has been successfully tried elsewhere in some London public services and the disruption involved can be much less than usual approaches.


The famous economist Maynard Keynes was quoted as saying that “In the long run we are all dead”. People have debated endlessly what it was the Keynes meant by this remark but it does seem that he was implying a criticism of the short termism that dominated economic policy in his day. No doubt he would also have criticised short termism in relation to policy on local government reorganisation!?


Finally, it should be noted that while local government restructuring, along the lines I have suggested, should produce a local government system more relevant to 21st century Wales than the present system, this is not a panacea for all ills. There are many other challenges, particularly those associated with increasing demand for services and limitations on resources. Local government in Wales faces huge challenges in meeting the increased demand for social care for the elderly consequent on the ageing population. No local government system can cope with these challenges without radical changes to the way in which social care is financed. Hence the ongoing debate in Wales about the potential merits for a social tax supplemental tax.


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Malcolm Prowle is professor of performance management at the University of Gloucestershire.

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