Saturday, July 12, 2014

Local government reorganisation in Wales        

By Peter Rowlands 

The recent moves by the Welsh Government (WG) to promote mergers between local authorities in Wales, as advocated by the Williams Report, means that this is now accepted as the main way in which reorganisation will take place, alongside the growth of consortia for various functions.

I regard this as utterly wrong. Even if all the proposed mergers took place no new authority would have a population of over 300,000 except Cardiff and the Vale, with many at about 200,000 or below. This would necessitate the continued operation of unaccountable and confusing consortia for different functions, with inevitable, and justified, calls for further reorganisation. What is being called for therefore would be expensive, destabilising, and unsatisfactory and only have a brief and unwarranted life.

This is not to say that Williams is all wrong. It is in my view right on town and community councils, coterminosity and scrutiny and audit, although not on Powys. However, it is the local authority mergers that are its central feature.

Rather than go down this road it would be far better for WG to bite the bullet and initiate a major reorganisation now. If this does not happen the provision of front line services in Wales will remain hampered by the costs of an inefficient local government structure.

The outlines of a new structure appear fairly obvious, at least to me. They are based on some existing boundaries including those for health, fire and police and some of the consortia. Indeed, with one exception, they follow the WG’s ‘Regional Collaborative Footprint’, which is similar to the previous county structure except that in North and mid Wales four counties have become two regions.

My recommended structure would therefore be of five new counties, as follows:

1) North Wales. These are the six counties of Anglesey, Gwynedd, Conwy, Flint, Denbigh and Wrexham. There is an exact fit with one health board, police authority, fire service and education consortium.The population of the new authority would be 675,000.
2) Mid and West Wales. This includes the four counties of Pembroke, Carmarthen, Ceredigion and Powys. There is an exact fit with one police authority and two health boards which need to be merged. The existing fire service includes Swansea and Neath/Port Talbot to which Bridgend could be transferred for fire.  New population: 510,000. (The Williams proposal to merge Powys council and health board should be rejected, as it would create a completely different structure here, which would cause all sorts of problems. If justified it should apply to all of rural Wales, as there is nothing unique about Powys in this regard, as Williams asserts.)
3) South West Wales. This includes the three counties of Swansea, Neath/Port Talbot and Bridgend. There is an exact fit with the health board. Fire would differ from current arrangements – see above. The police authority would remain shared with the rest of Glamorgan. New population: 500,000.
4) South Central Wales. This includes the four counties of Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr Tydfil. There is an exact fit with two health boards which need to be merged. Police would be as above, fire as now.  New population: 730,000.
5)South East Wales. This includes the counties of Caerphilly, Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, Newport and Monmouthshire. There is an exact fit with one police authority and health board. Fire would be as now.  New population: 560,000.

All these new authorities would have viable populations of at least 500,000, with the biggest only half as much again as that. Three would have a major town at its centre. There would be five mergers of existing authorities, two of four and one each of six, five and three. There would also be two mergers of two health boards. All consortia would be abolished as they would be replaced by the new authorities, although only in North Wales was there an exact fit with the new authority. There would be no point in adding to the number of police or fire authorities, particularly as a single all Wales police service has been mooted.

Something along these lines is what is needed, and if that cannot be afforded now there is no point in mergers between two authorities, for reasons given above. The suggested reorganisation would be expensive but would generate substantial savings and better run services. It would also avoid a ‘democratic deficit’ caused by power being held by consortia which were not directly accountable to the electorate, while the increased size and remoteness of the new councils could be countered by a beefed up network of Community Councils that operated everywhere rather than just in rural or fringe suburban areas as at present. On this Williams is right, with proposals to reduce the number (amazingly, 736) of town and community councils
through mergers to create more effective bodies, and to generate new bodies to cover urban areas along the lines of the successful ’neighbourhood management’ initiative in Cardiff.

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