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Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Is it time for a radical overhaul of Welsh local government?

Over at the BBC, the Welsh Political editor, Nick Servini has been speculating on the intentions of Wales' new Local Government Secretary towards our local councils. Alun Davies has already announced that he wants to give 16 and 17 year olds the vote in municipal elections. Is he ready to bite the bullet and implement more radical changes?

It has long been my view that we have too many councils, many of which are too small to effectively deliver larger services such as education and social services on a cost-efficient basis. As a result, and because some of the councils do not have a balanced council tax base, people in parts of Wales are paying through the nose for inadequate services  (real term cuts in Revenue Support Grant are also a factor in this).

Nick Servini is not alone in noting that the Welsh Government now has a majority in the Assembly to push through any legislation. The big question though is whether they can afford to upset Labour council leaders when the First Minister is under siege and his cabinet are busy manoeuvring to succeed him?

The other consideration has to be whether reform is worth carrying out if it does not carry out a radical restructuring of the way councils operate? Moving boundaries around from a Cardiff Bay cubby hole will not cut it. Change has to be meaningful, empowering and bottom-up.

What that means is that new boundaries, based on a realistic number of councils (I would suggest 15 or 16) should be drawn up by the boundary commission, taking account of community links, economic factors such as enhancing major urban centres of employment, the views of local people and of course geography.

New powers should be devolved from the Welsh Government to local councils, including economic development, a power of general competence, oversight of further education, and the merger of primary health services, public health and community care with social services within the democratically accountable local government structure. That would necessitate changes to the governance of secondary health services.

In my view there are too many councillors. Their number should be reduced but their role enhanced so as to give them greater responsibility to deliver services in their own area. And of course there needs to be a rationalisation of community councils to make them more sustainable where they exist and giving them the ability to deliver more services in their own area.

Finally, none of this is worth doing if we don't ensure that the councillors running these new authorities have a proper mandate. The introduction of the single transferable vote for all council elections is essential. That is the only way that we can ensure that the make-up of councils properly reflect the communities they serve. In that way they will be more accountable and consequently deliver better services.

These are the sort of radical changes that I believe that the new local government minister needs to introduce. I accept that we will not get all of them, but with electoral reform, empowerment and the role of the boundary commission as red lines for Welsh Lib Dem support, it is a bullet that needs to be bitten now, whilst an opportunity exists to have the changes enacted.

Do the Welsh Government and the Minister have the cojones? We will have to see.
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