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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Is the Welsh Government's reorganisation agenda misguided?

There are two news items today that raise fresh questions about the Welsh Labour Government's determination to recast local government in Wales in their own image?

Today's Western Mail reports on the views of Professor Colin Copus, director of the Local Governance Research Unit at De Montfort University, who has attacked arguments that bigger councils will prove more efficient and has warned that the Welsh Government's proposals could damage the communities they are supposed to serve:

He writes: “As with most local government reform, the most depressing element of the situation in Wales is the stubborn, folklore like attachment to the perceived benefits of big local government which is consistently displayed by policy-makers.”

He claims it has been known for half a century that bigger councils are not automatically “more efficient, more effective, and cheaper”.

Warning of “damage” to the “democratic health of local communities,” he states: “What that means is that as local government gets less and less local, trust in councillors and officers declines and that community engagement and cohesion deteriorates.”

I agree with much of that. It does not mean that we should not go-ahead and reduce the number of councils to ten or twelve as the Welsh Liberal Democrats have argued but it does mean that we should not claim such a reorganisation as the panacea for all ills and we should ensure that the new councils are elected through the single transferable vote system so as to ensure better accountability and transparency.

We should also look at other mechanisms such as better empowering more robust community councils, as a means of reinforcing local accountability for services. And of course we should ensure that the boundaries of new councils should be determined by the independent boundary commission and be based on natural communities.

The second item is on the BBC and focusses on the comments of the Auditor General for Wales, Huw Vaughan Thomas who believes that the debates on whether or not to merge councils have been a distraction from deciding how services should be run. He is not wrong:

Mr Thomas said services needed more radical change to cope with cuts.

Five years into the longest period of sustained spending reductions since World War Two, he said public services needed to be reformed, but that had been "overshadowed" by local government reorganisation.

The Welsh government's council merger plans have had a hostile reception from political opponents and some Labour council leaders.

"There has been a lot of debate about the nature of services, but it has been overshadowed by what kind of structure of local government we want," Mr Thomas said.

"What's more important for people is not necessarily what council is there, but the services they are providing, it's certainly been a distraction.

"It's affected, I think, the ability of some councils to think beyond four or five year horizons. They need to think much longer term."

He said councils in England were "redesigning themselves" and "we need to be doing the same in Wales".

The failure of the Welsh Labour Government to involve other parties from the start of this process or to get a consensus on their proposals within the Senedd is creating uncertainty that is preventing reform and is impacting upon future planning.

That is also the case because Labour Ministers are focussing on structures and not on the other recommendations in the Williams Commission. Labour could not have made a bigger mess of this restructuring if they had tried.

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