Wednesday 24 August 2011

Reorganising local government in Wales

A report produced by Estyn and the Care and Social Services Inspectorate has highlighted serious failings in the way Pembrokeshire County Council is run, and some of the criticism of the way in which the council is dominated by its non-elected officers sounds very familiar to us neighbours in Carmarthenshire.

The Western Telegraph's coverage of the report can be seen here, along with some interesting comments. Some of those commenting would seem to work for the council, and one advances a conspiracy theory that Estyn is somehow involved in a plot with the Welsh Government to discredit councils as a prelude to a shake-up of local government in Wales. The same anonymous individual warns that if Pembrokeshire is not careful, it could end up being ruled from Carmarthen, a fate surely worse than death.

In a measured piece, Vaughan Roderick also thinks the Welsh Government is preparing the ground for a shake-up.

Of course, the fact is that Wales does not need and cannot afford 22 separate counties and county boroughs, plus three national park authorities.

It is hard to make comparisons with other countries because systems of local government vary so much. Switzerland, with a population of just under 8 million, has 26 cantons. These vary in size and population enormously, and some of the smallest cantons are also the whackiest. That may sound familiar to residents of Angelsey, Wales's own leading basket case. Possibly the most notorious of the Swiss cantons are the two "half cantons" of Appenzell, where women did not get the vote until the 1970s, and where people voted strongly against joining the United Nations in 2002.

France, with a population of about 63 million, has 96 mainland departements, yielding an average of just under 660,000 people per departement.

How ever you look at it, we are pretty close to the top of the league table of most over-governed places in Europe, and probably in the world, but bringing about change will inevitably upset more people than it pleases.

Hands up in Angelsey if you want a merger with Gwynedd. Oh, all right then.

Come in Llanelli. So you are not happy with being part of Carmarthenshire, something we can understand. How about a merger with Swansea? No?

Calling Ceredigion. In many respects Ceredigion makes obvious sense as a county, but it is struggling in some important areas, including education where a budgetary crisis is looming. Not many takers in Ceredigion for a return to the days of Dyfed.

Powys is probably one of the few existing counties which should have a secure future, although there may well be a Radnorshire Liberation Front for all I know.

Then we have a clutch of Labour fiefdoms in Rhondda Cynon Taf, Merthyr, Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, etc., some of which are very obviously failing local people and children in particular. Compare pupil-teacher ratios, and you will see what I mean.

It's not just local resistance that is holding up change, of course. There was not much discussion about reorganising local government in the recent Assembly election campaign, was there? Partly because the last two reorganisations were so badly botched, and partly because the patchwork quilt of local government provides so many jobs, and no politician wants to throw thousands of people out of work at a time of rising unemployment.

But we must bite the bullet, nevertheless. The report on children's services in Pembrokeshire is one of the most damning ever to be published in Wales, and its criticisms of the way in which the council is run apply to quite a few other Welsh councils. In some parts of Wales local authority education provision is so under-funded and inadequate that it should constitute a national scandal.

Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire are not alone in having undemocratic and secretive officer-led regimes. The Local Development Plans which threaten so many parts of Wales with massive housing developments and the obliteration of local communities are a product not of local democracy, but of a system in which a small elite of career administrators have gained control and are seeking to stamp their vision on the rest of us. The busier and bigger councils become, the less likely they are to be abolished; that may be the thought at the back of a few minds in county halls across Wales.

And then we have the ordinary, everyday lunacy of local government. The nearest council waste recycling centre to me is about 10 miles away, but I live a few hundred yards away on the wrong side of the river. So I have to do a round trip of about 45 miles, instead. Great for the environment.

How about a nice project to improve river access to local residents and tourists alike? Best not even think about it because the river is a local authority boundary, and any project which involves cross-border cooperation is almost certainly doomed.

So let's hope the conspiracy theorist is right, and that Cardiff is contemplating a root and branch reform; that the fiefdoms and rotten boroughs will be swept away; that the overmighty chief executives, secrecy and undemocratic ways of Welsh local government are consigned to the rubbish bin where they belong; and that our national politicians rise to the challenge and set about building a system of local government which is the envy of the rest of Europe.

Well, we can but hope.


Morgan Hen said...

In Kansas we have 293 school districts covering a population smaller than Wales, and the best performing ones are the small fry.

RLF said...

There is a Radnorshire Liberation Front