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Sunday, June 06, 2010

Chicago to Pembrokeshire

What has Chicago got in common with Pembrokeshire? Actually, I cannot think of a single thing but that has not stopped Wales on Sunday columnist. Matt Withers posing an important question.

In his column today he embarks on a rant about the finances of Welsh local authorities, albeit one that is scant on facts and substance:

Spare the tears when the councils claim vital frontline services are facing being slashed if their already-tight budgets are cut – in truth, while those in the private sector have faced years of cutbacks, redundancies and uncertainty, local authorities have continued to spend money like a drunken scratchcard winner in a regional nightclub. Only less wisely.

Any business which operated like a council would go bust within six months, having built up several layers of pointless bureaucracy, many replicating each other, over-paying staff for non-jobs and yet still providing below-par services.

But no, say the councils! Cut our budgets and we’ll have to lose teachers, lose binmen! Tish and pish. There are swathes of people who could lose their jobs tomorrow without any noticeable effect.

People might notice if a teacher or binman loses their job. But they’re unlikely to take to the streets in protest at an Assistant Director of Corporate Governance getting the chop. And nor is anybody likely to notice.

What Mr. Withers may not have noticed is that local Councils across Wales have already made tens of millions of pounds worth of cuts and are projecting further cuts and the loss of thousands of jobs in the future.

It is easy to write this stuff so as to fill a blank space in a newspaper but delivering it whilst protecting services takes time. Most Councils have already streamlined their management and plan to do more. There are projects underway to share services, though there is a great deal more that can be done on this front not least on joint back-office systems with education and health, and a huge amount of work is underway to cut out fat.

If the level of duplication that is alleged is there (and no doubt there will be some) then Matt Withers will surely be offering his services as a consultant to help cut it out. He will make a fortune.

I have already written about my own view that we can work with less and bigger Councils, with responsibility for health and further education and a third fewer Councillors so as to drive forward economies of scale and to improve the democratisation of public services.

In the meantime, perhaps I can help him with his final query. He says that it has never been explained why Pembrokeshire needs more elected councillors than, say, the city of Chicago with its population of 2.9 million.

The answer lies in the fact that Chicago notoriously has a directly-elected Mayor, supported by a huge bureaucracy. Its Council members are full-time, unlike those in Pembrokeshire and there are other layers of government at state level, including State Representatives, State Senators and a Governor. The odds are that Chicago has more politicians representing its interests than any county or City in Wales.
There is a "hamlet" in Pembrokeshire with a pre 1950's name on the road to St David's past Solfach called "Elvis" but Presley was not connected to Chicago! So I give up. What's the connection? Is it "potatoes and chips"?
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