Friday 2 September 2011

Reforming Welsh Local Government - Carl Sargeant shows a bit of ankle

We did not have to wait long to get a glimpse of what the Welsh Government intends to do with local government, with the announcement yesterday that it plans to create six new regions to deliver services such as education, social care and waste collection. A draft law will be published in the autumn setting out details, and until we see that yesterday's announcement leaves us with more questions than answers.

What is already clear is that none of the existing 22 councils will be merged or abolished, and all 1,200-odd councillors will remain.

It is also clear that there is broad consensus among both the public and in government circles that 22 separate local authorities is too many, but the Government's conclusion was that a reorganisation along those lines would be expensive, slow and might not deliver efficiencies. In addition, the Government is almost certainly mindful that any attempt to change boundaries would invariably upset vocal local lobbies who want to keep entities such as Pembrokeshire.

Social care, education and waste collection account for a huge chunk of our councils' business, and pooling these services on regional lines certainly makes some sense. Without them, questions will inevitably be asked whether we then still need all the paraphernalia of chief executives, assistant chief executives and directors of this and that 22 times over. The residual responsibilities of the councils will be reduced to not much more than housing and planning, collecting council tax, running leisure centres and public health.

One of the main dangers of the proposals is that they could result in the creation of a new layer of government with new regional education authorities and joint committees of councillors, while leaving the old county infrastructure in place below it and leading to (even) less transparency and accountability.

There will also be concerns about the impact on the Welsh language, with education in places such as Gwynedd and Ynys Môn, being subsumed into a much larger quasi-authority covering areas which are predominantly English-speaking. The same could be true for the proposed Mid and West Wales region.

On the positive side, many people in Wales will hope that the bureaucratic nonsense of a myriad of council boundaries is reduced. Comments on the BBC Wales website include several from people who have been threatened for daring to use the wrong council waste collection depot, and perhaps in some areas school catchments will be less restrictive.

The proposals have already been criticised by some as reorganisation through the back door. It certainly looks as though the Government is following the line of least resistance politically, with a largely technocratic reform which could yet have much greater consequences for all of us than the low-key announcement yesterday let on.

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