Friday, 19 June 2015

Was it ever necessary to have 22 councils in such a small country?

Leighton Andrews’s announcement yesterday will be a severe test for the leadership and maturity of our Senedd. What were the reasons that the Remuneration Board gave for proposing an 18% increase to AMs pay? Wales needs good governance and good government with a strong and effective Assembly. I certainly agree with that. But, Wales also needs Members who are exceptional, motivated and of high ability. Well, here we are—the first exam! How do they measure-up to the criteria?

Do you remember the well- known nursery rhyme sung in primary school—at least in my time—‘Here we go round the mulberry bush, mulberry bush ..?’ Well, a load of local and national politicians across Wales must be singing it today.

The effective Minister Leighton Andrews has announced that there is going to be a shake-up to the 22 Councils in Wales and that they will be reduced to eight or nine.

That sounds good. There are certainly too many and they definitely need sorting; but then I realised we have been here before! I worked for 18 years in one such council—West Glamorgan, and it was a very good authority too. So I soon asked myself—what is going on and, as with so much else in Wales, wondered how did we get into this state of affairs?

Firstly, a quick history lesson! Remember the old historic counties that had been the corner stone of local administration for centuries going back as far as 1138, with others created in 1282 and 1535? In 1889, they became the main local government authorities in Wales with urban and rural district councils, boroughs and parish councils beneath.

In the sixties, rumblings began about modernising local government—some of the old counties were too small it was argued, and they did not have enough resources to provide a good effective service and that there was too much duplication between the lower tiers. Eventually a White Paper was published by the Labour Government in 1967 based on the findings of the 1962 Local Government Commission for Wales. As always, which is typical of Welsh politics, change was not imminent—oh no—we don’t do important things in a hurry! So nothing happened, and then the Redcliffe-Maud Commission was set up (we had to have another one, you see ..) and in March 1970, another Labour White Paper was published.

Immediately afterwards, a general election was held in June, and quite unexpectedly the Conservatives won with Ted Heath as Prime Minister and Peter Thomas as Secretary of State for Wales. So another cycle of consultations did the round in 1971 and finally, after Parliamentary debate in 1972, the Local Government (Wales) 1974 Act came into being, creating eight counties and thirty seven districts.

I was in Parliament when the bill was being discussed, amended and debated for about six months. There were many heated exchanges over Pembrokeshire’s inclusion in Dyfed, Monmouthshire’s in Gwent, and Anglesey’s in Gwynedd etc. The cities of Cardiff and Swansea were not happy and neither were the towns of Newport and Wrexham—what about our identity they asked? Also along with Barry, Penarth and ‘The Vale’, some of the South Wales valley towns were equally disgruntled. So just like today, the old local identity thing, so precious to us, figured prominently in the arguments of opponents to change at that time!

Space precludes me from going into an important and concurrent development that began to emerge. In response to the increasing tide of nationalist feelings in Wales and Scotland, as well as the incessant representation from about 8 Welsh Labour MPs and a similar number in Scotland, Harold Wilson established the Crowther/Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution, no doubt in order to ‘cool the temperature’. I was heavily involved, at the time, in preparing the Labour Party in Wales’s evidence to the Commission. When I became a Member of Parliament, I continued to agitate amongst my colleagues, of course, with the active connivance of more experienced representatives. Acting as an under-cover whip we drafted a Commons Early Day motion—signed by more than sixteen of the Welsh Labour MPs—which called for the creation of an Elected Council for Wales to be incorporated into the local government reorganisation bill. This much-argued motion kicked off the big devolution debate in the Labour Party that lasted until the Blair Government.

The 1974 reforms were never happily accepted and for many years the self-same authorities mentioned above kept on campaigning and agitating on a number of fronts. Then, importantly in 1983, they realised they had new allies in the form of a stronger Tory party in Wales. So with Nicholas Edwards firstly at the helm and then David Hunt after, the current 22 councils came into being on April 1996.

I give that brief background just to illustrate, as the Good Book says, that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. Leighton Andrews had hardly finished making his announcement when all the same arguments came to the fore and from the very same councils—be it council leaders or AMs. Be in no doubt, we will soon see Tory MPs and even many Labour MPs in on the act. The case for keeping things as they are revolve mainly around staff uncertainty for five years, perceived loss of local identity and community involvement, as well as the desire to avoid additional costs caused by a shake-up during a difficult financial time. In their way, all these have varying degrees of validity, but they miss the central arguments and I will soon return to them.

As usual, thrown into the mix are the usual last resort arguments of party politicians—its gerrymandering, dictat from the centre, where will the head offices be located for each authority, need for more conferences and, of course, that there has been a lack of consultation. As I have already illustrated, the form and shape of local government in Wales has been the subject of unending consultation, argument and debate for the past 50 years. Even the current proposed changes to local government have been heralded for some three years. The Williams Commission reported in January 2014 and the Welsh Government, following the introduction of a White Paper in July 2014, asked the 22 authorities in January 2015 to voluntarily bring forward merger plans—three proposals came forward but nothing else.

Voluntary merger plans were never going to happen across Wales. Any possibility of wide scale voluntary arrangements would have encompassed loss of local identity, need for fewer council members, shake-up of senior staff and conflict over the location of head offices. Far too much narrow self-interest would have been bubbling away in the cauldron for such an approach to succeed. It is inevitable that further discussions with interested ‘stakeholders’ will take place and the Williams Commission four options of between 10 and 12 Councils should form part of those discussions. This would test the seriousness and the sincerity of the opponents to the present proposal. However it would be extremely unwise for Leighton Andrews to let those discussions be deployed as delaying tactics—if anything, the process needs to be speeded-up by a year at the very least and avoid unnecessary uncertainties.

But there is an interesting political scenario unfolding—consider which areas the three Welsh Office Ministers represent and what the proposals mean for them? I am told that the Secretary of State was looking very glum when the announcement was made on Wednesday. But it is not just a developing political scenario; there is also an economic imperative. The Secretary of State is part of a cabinet that seriously is intent on implementing cutbacks in public spending and equally importantly, reducing the size of the public sector. Oh dear what a conundrum for Stephen Crabb and Alan Cairns, also for the Conservative party in Wales. Already Andrew R T Davies is not only just sitting on the fence but doing a ‘Pontius Pilate’ – so much for leadership and that argument for an 18% pay rise!

Anyway, back to why it is necessary to have this shake-up. In the first place, it was a major mistake to move away from the seven large counties—in general, they were performing well and had developed good working arrangements with most of the districts. Of course there were local tensions and power struggles. Examples that come to mind include Clwyd and Wrexham, West Glamorgan and Swansea, South Glamorgan and The Vale, Mid Glamorgan and one or two of its districts, and yes Dyfed and Pembrokeshire with, at times, Ceredigion. But most of the difficulties were fed by party politics and personal squabbles which ultimately impaired good officer relationships.

At a professional level the counties had developed very good reputations and expertise across many services that were even recognised beyond Wales. In many of the local government data tables on performance in England and Wales at the time, I recall Dyfed, Clwyd, West Glamorgan and South Glamorgan coming out very highly, especially on education and social services. Gwynedd could also be included. For the period I had considerable knowledge and experience of council service provision, I can vouch that the education, advisory and career services provided to schools were first rate, as were the social service and economic development support. The reason for that is obvious—their resources were big enough to provide the necessary professional input.

In the last ten years or so, headteachers, staff and governors often recounted to me—during schools inspections—the limited support received from the existing 22 counties. These authorities lacked the necessary resources and without doubt it affected school standards. The same has been true of social services. To be fair, some of the current authorities have moved towards developing local partnerships in recent years, but these are too few and, from what I understand, insufficient progress is being made in sharing resources and achieving effective outcomes.

I am now out of the system, but how many of the 22 councils have been placed in special measures, either for failing to provide the necessary education or social service support or, much more worryingly, for not providing the expected corporate and governance leadership? That was not the case under the seven counties or indeed their districts. However, as with everything else there are exceptions and Ceredigion is one of them.

Turning to the cost argument, Wales now has its Senedd along with all the other bodies and councils. Indeed, we are over-governed and over-represented. Wales has truthfully become, through uncoordinated decisions, a land of politicians and administrators. It is unwieldly and costly. Remember Wales has about 60% of the population of Scotland but we have more councillors and ten more local authorities. Those who wish to pursue the loss of community contact as an argument in this debate need to understand that Scotland’s land area is more than three times larger than Wales. But our costly public administration system does not end there—Wales has seven hospital boards, sixteen Welsh Government sponsored bodies and twenty four advisory committees. Everyone has to realise that Wales is a small country not much bigger in population than the Manchester Metropolitan area with ten authorities.

Recently a consultant’s report estimated that the 22 Councils could make approximately £150M savings a year—but again nothing serious is being done about it. So why are the current councils costly? We hear too often of outrageous salaries, redundancy and job release packages, dubious payments to senior officers, over staffing, poor administration and serious service failings? Generally, Welsh officialdom’s response to these issues in local government and elsewhere is that ‘lessons will be learnt’. Sorry not good enough.

One stark example is sufficient to prove the point on cost once and for all —in 1974 there were eight functions of Chief Executive and service Directors covering areas such as education and social services for the each authority. In one fell swoop from April 1996, twenty two of these functions per council appeared as if by magic—a three-fold increase. In addition, that three-fold increase was repeated from second to fifth and even sixth tier officer levels—absurd.

Then there are the enormous capital costs relating to council offices—so many of the districts built brand new, purpose built County Halls and Civic Centres in the 1980’s. I shudder to think what the costs were, but it was probably well over £100M at those days prices. Now we are stuck with them in the reorganisation planning, and yes I can see arguments emerging over where the new headquarters should be situated for each of the new authorities—but that is really a minor issue in the bigger picture.

Without labouring the point—no pun intended—yes, the actual reorganisation will cost and estimates have been produced in November 2014 by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy with a mid-range of some £200m.But there will be immediate savings from the reorganisation in the region of £70M and that is every year thereafter and the figure will increase over the years. In addition the £150m that should be saved every year now by local councils will come into play as well since they will be implemented as part of the whole settlement Therefore in cost/benefit terms a massive saving is involved and it is an investment in Wales’s future. So I urge the First Minister and his cabinet to see this through. If a little bit of compromise is required that is fine but nothing beyond one of the Williams Commission options.

One final point will merit consideration in the forthcoming consultations and discussions and that revolves around the system of voting to be used. To ensure genuine democracy where the opinions and voting patterns of all the Welsh people are reflected in party politics, in the new councils the system of proportional voting known as Single Transferable Vote should be introduced. This is already the case in Scotland. It will ensure fair representation for local communities, a real choice for voters and better scrutiny. Having worked for eighteen years in a local authority I know how local communities often feel marginalised in the Council Chamber if they are not represented by the ruling party. That by the way goes for small and larger councils. It will be a significant move towards the renewal of local democracy. Our Senedd should be elected along the same STV system to ensure an inclusive, democratic Wales.

Indeed this important issue for the effective administration of Wales will be a real test for the Senedd after some fifteen years. Has it matured into a body capable of making big decisions? There really is no point seeking additional powers over finance and income tax, for instance, if the Senedd members lack courage and leadership on this issue, and act only parochially rather than strategically with an ambitious and financially sustainable vision for our nation.

This post written by Gwynoro first appeared on Cambria Nostra: 19/6/2015