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Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Welsh Government cop-out on local council shake-up

Having spectacularly screwed up the proposed reorganisation of Welsh local councils by failing to include the other political parties in the commision that drew up the initial proposals and putting in place red lines that precluded future cross party support, the First Minister has gone back to the drawing board with a new minister and new proposals which are well, just a variation on the status quo.

The BBC report that the Local Government Secretary Mark Drakeford is to make a statement later today that proposes better joint working as the solution to all local government's problems. The problem is of course that the Williams Commission was set up because of the failure of joint working, so why will this be any different?

For the answer to that question, we need to hear the statement but I am sceptical that voluntary structures such as joint cabinets can prevail for long, given the problems of different and changing political leadership and priroities and the need to address issues of effective scrutiny, governance and accountability.

The previous local government minister observed accurately that the only way to effect permanent change in local councils was to bribe them, thart is pay them to do things, or force them to change through regulation or legislation. I paraphrase. That truism remains valid today.

So when the Welsh Government trail the possibility that resources for social care and educational improvement could be pooled along the health board boundaries and that councils could be grouped to work together on transport, economic development and planning, we need to know how they are going to achieve this. Will there be new legislation and if so why waste the opportunity to carry out the much needed reorganisation?

The answer to that last question is of course that the Welsh Government cannot get a bill reorganising local councils through the Assembly., That is because they refuse to compromise on key issues.

My view is that if they let go of the reins a bit, allowed the boundary commission to draw up new council boundaries based on natural communities instead of existing lines on the map and conceded the principle of the single transferable vote for council elections then reorganisation could be achieved. It would mean a much longer timetable but at least we would have a better chance of getting it right.

But back to the present proposals. The glaring omission in all of these suggestions is accountability. If the Welsh Government is going to pool health and social care budgets then why not hand it all over to local councils so that there is full democratic accountability for that money and how it is going to be spent?

Will they outline how joint arrangements can be sustained when past agreements have fallen apart after a few years under spending pressures and changing political priorities? Will the Cabinet Secretary say how an increase in joint boards and arms-length arrangements can be effectively policed and scrutinised? Who will set the policies they work to and what will be the role of backbench and opposition councillors in all of this? We will have to see.

So far this looks like a managerial approach without a democratic element. It is a typical top-down Labour solution that will further undermine local acountability and disempower local electors. It really isnt good enough.
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