|In case you were wondering, it's in reference to this.|
As you'll already know, in 2014 the Williams Commission recommended the number of local authorities be reduced to 10 or 12 (as well as a number of other measures on public service delivery). The legislation needed to push this through was tabled during the Fourth Assembly, but after some controversies the proposals have been reworked.
The Secretary praised local government's resolve in the face of public spending cuts (clip). There was a need to build a new resilience into local authorities (English: you're getting less money), so reform was a "requirement, not a choice". While a lot of the proposals in previous Bills were welcomed, important aspects were not. He's visited all 22 councils and held meetings with the WLGA and political parties, listening carefully to all views.
As for the proposals themselves:
- The existing 22 local authorities will be retained as the "democratic tier" of local government.
- Local authorities can proceed with voluntary mergers if they wish and the Welsh Government will work with them when needed.
- Mandatory collaboration between local authorities on a regional basis/combined regional authorities.
- Some matters like transport, planning and economic development will be centred on city regions; social care, education etc. will be centred on local health boards.
- There'll be a "sensible and practical time frame" for implementation; all councillors elected in 2017 will serve a full 5-year term and another 5-year term will be guaranteed until 2027. The Secretary hopes plans will be ready for consultation by the end of the year.
- An independent root and branch review of town and community councils due to the enormous variability in "scale, scope, capacity and ambition".
Shadow Local Government Minister, Sian Gwenllian (Plaid, Arfon), congratulated (clip) the Secretary for coming up with a weaker version of Plaid Cymru's own proposal for combined regional authorities (see more : Back to the Future). Sian didn't think the new proposals would save money, and asked whether any assessment has been carried out to ensure community needs are met? There was also a lack of clarity on how regional authorities would be held accountable, and what the impact might be on rural authorities in terms of jobs as councils are major employers; centralising back office functions, for example, could have a serious impact.
The Secretary joked that Plaid Cymru council leaders disagreed with the party's own policy, but he's keen to look for consensus and was willing to see merit in what Plaid proposed. He was sure money can be saved as the regional model will enable authorities to develop specialist expertise where services might be "fragile" in smaller authorities. On accountability, he recalled his own membership of the old South Wales Police board, which was a combined authority and where he was questioned on his role by other South Glamorgan councillors.
Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy) was pleased the Welsh Government have made a u-turn after "the fiasco of the last three years" (clip). She contested the claim there was agreement on the last Local Government Bill, as if it wasn't for the casting vote of the committee chair nothing would've been agreed. Janet seemed particularly concerned about Plaid Cymru's influence on the proposals and asked how open the consultation will be and whether the regional authorities would add another layer of bureaucracy? Janet also asked whether the Secretary believed councils were "up to the mark" on procurement?
The Secretary planned to use the rest of the calendar year to discuss the proposals in detail with local authorities; once that ends the plans will be put out for formal consultation. He didn't believe there would be a new bureaucracy as there wouldn't be any extra councillors. On Plaid's influence, there were early discussions with Plaid due to the compact agreement but all parties had been consulted. As for procurement, progress needed to be made on shared services but it had to be done sensitively to local needs and circumstances, not resulting in shared service centres located a long distance away.
Gareth Bennett AM (UKIP, South Wales Central) welcomed the more consultative approach compared to the Secretary's predecessor and the extra clarity on local elections next year (clip). However, there wasn't much detail, and the possible merger of departments had to be closely overseen to prevent the creation of extra bureaucracy. He also criticised high redundancy pay outs for senior staff, asking how can it be better controlled?
The Secretary was open to the Assembly's Local Government Committee taking a look at the proposals in more detail. He didn't think the proposals would lead to whole scale changes in the number of jobs – front line staff would still be retained by their current councils. Most changes would be at management level, with further discussions taking place in the coming months.
Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) said UK councils were the largest in Europe, and Slovenia – which has about 1 million fewer people than Wales – has ten times the number of local authorities (clip). There was no evidence of larger authorities performing better but there was a right size for different policies; development control could be decided at a different level to structural planning. Mike believed city regions were the natural footprint and cited the merger between primary and secondary care as an example of one service syphoning money from the other (money being redirected to hospitals from primary care).
The Secretary said there has never been a claim that size is a determining factor in public service success, nor is it irrelevant as it brings advantages in certain areas. He didn't know if the city region model would be the best solution for Cardiff where 10 councils are involved, while organisational boundaries don't solve professional boundaries (in relation to the primary and secondary care merger).
Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) called back to the "cheap date" comment (which was related to this), saying Labour had "woken up in Plaid Cymru's clothes" (clip). Simon also raised the question of accountability, particularly directly-elected mayors and the introduction of single transferrable vote. He was unsure about the need for a new review of town and community councils as there's alerady been a review, asking whether there were still plans to delay town and community council elections by a year?
The Secretary confirmed local authority and town/community council elections will take place on the same day in May 2017. He wasn't sure he had enough information on town/community councils and wants to empower them to do more in the face of varying sizes and capacity. There's yet to be a single position on how to strengthen lower tiers of local government, with two thirds of town/community council seats uncontested or co-opted. Elected mayors will be on the table but the Secretary believes it's best decided by local populations.
Rhianon Passmore AM (Lab, Islwyn) used the opportunity to go on a rant against the Tories instead of addressing the substance of the statement (clip). When she did get around to it she was pleased there was more clarity and assurances for local government in the face of cuts to the Welsh block grant and the future end to EU structural funds.
The Secretary believes the impact of austerity was real and the loss of EU funding adds another layer of uncertainty; this all amounts to a compelling case to build new resilience in local authorities.
Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM (Plaid, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) welcomed co-operation between Labour and Plaid on the internal governance of Wales (clip). He hoped the regional model will enable north Wales to take on the challenges faced by competition from the Midlands. He would like the review to create a truly local and efficient democracy, including mayors.
The Secretary agreed on the importance of strong regions, and the current collaboration between councils in north Wales, who are aware of what's happening in England and have to come together to strengthen. He accepted the Assembly has spent a lot of time discussing the relationship between themselves and Westminster, but haven't spent the same amount of time discussing the relationship between themselves and local councils; this was an opportunity to do that.
"I hate to say 'I told you so', but ...."
I'd like to take everyone back to January 2014 for a second, when I said this:
"I'll stick my neck out and predict, firstly, that there'll be a struggle to hit the 2018 'deadline'....despite the....determination coming from Cathays Park, (they) might find opposition from within local government too much to handle.
....Next, I predict we'll get a watered-down version – a compromise of 16-18 local authorities - where only the smallest local authorities, or those persistently in special measures, will merge with larger neighbours (Merthyr, Anglesey, Blaenau Gwent etc). We'll still get the inevitable harumphing from councillors and officers in the Welsh press, but it'll keep costs and redundancies to a minimum....
....Any compromise will be justified on cost grounds, following successful lobbying from various public bodies, WLGA and the bigger local authorities....We'll still have 900+ public bodies, and we'll return to this again in 15-20 years time...."
That's not exactly what's happened, but it's close....and I said it the same day the Williams Commission report was published. I don't think you need particular powers of foresight to come to that conclusion either:
"They correctly saw what the problem was, they formed a committee, they chickened out of making the big calls. 'How Wales works' in a nutshell."
There's little to add to what was said in the debate, though I'll continue to argue that the regional tier should be formalised and separate from lower tiers and separately elected – whether that's a directly-elected mayor or a regional council.