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The unanswered questions around local government reorganisation in Wales

IWA

Ahead of the First Minister’s statement on the Williams Commission tomorrow, Peter Black examines the questions that remain unanswered around local government reorganisation.

The Welsh Government is on a mission: they have committed themselves to reshuffling the local council pack as painlessly as possible and they want to enlist our support to do it.

Their determination to implement the Williams Commission report will come to a head on Tuesday when they announce their response to it but that will just be the start of the story.

Welsh Ministers have saddled themselves a handicap. The commission they established to look at this did not have the support or involvement of the other political parties. Attempts at forming a consensus, or even a majority for a particular set of proposals therefore become more difficult.

It is not the job of opposition parties to dig the Welsh government out of a hole of their own making. Local councillors, who stand to lose out through any reorganisation, are not likely to be inclined to step into that breach either.

But this should not be about the politicians, at whatever level. This issue is about the effective delivery of services and how the councillors and officers charged with that task can be held accountable for it.

What we need above all else is lasting and fundamental reform. We have had two local government reorganisations in just over 40 years. My concern is that the basis on which the current reorganisation is being proposed will leave us having to do it all over again within the next decade or so.

That is because, instead of creating councils based on sustainable communities, the Welsh Government are seeking to shoehorn existing councils together into bigger versions of themselves.

They are doing so without any further devolution of power to those new super-councils and without changing the basis on which they are elected. Form and structure are taking precedence over accountability, transparency, and effectiveness.

The Williams Commission was charged with looking at public services in Wales but were told to leave health alone. Given that it is widely recognised that in terms of the use of public resources that there remains a dysfunctional relationship between health and social care, the decision not to examine this issue and find suitable solutions to it is perverse.

The opportunity to democratise local health provision was consequently missed or deliberately overlooked.

For Welsh Liberal Democrats the issue of fair voting is a central consideration in any reorganisation. Our my view is that fair voting is absolutely fundamental to ensuring that you have accountable and transparent local authorities.

If the outcome of elections do not reflect the way people voted and produce big majorities for single parties on a minority of votes then not only are those councils unrepresentative, but they are less accountable, less sensitive to local opinion, and scrutiny is consequently less effective. The outcome is poorer services.

If the outcome of elections does reflect the way people voted then the opposite is true. Councils are more representative, scrutiny is more effective and there is much greater accountability and transparency. As a result services are better.

Cost is of course fundamental to any reorganisation. The Williams Commission estimates that it will cost about £100m to bring about the series of mergers they propose. The Welsh Local Government Association says that you can double that figure.

The Welsh Government will publish its own estimate in due course. But what is important here is how long it will take to recover the cost through savings, if there are substantial savings.

In a time of austerity every penny counts if we are to preserve services. A big up-front outlay of cash, which cannot be recovered fairly quickly will make things worse.

And what about the cost to taxpayers, who have already seen their council tax bills soar? The Williams Commission report contains some good news and some bad news for ordinary families.

They say that in the event of straightforward mergers, there will need to be an equalisation of council tax bills across the new local authority area. That means that without an extra penny being spent and before the new councils set their budgets, many families will find themselves paying more, whilst others will be better off.

Thus in terms of the proposed merger of Bridgend and Neath Port Talbot, council tax payers in the latter council will pay 4.4% less, whilst Bridgend families will face a 4.8% increase.

Council taxpayers in Anglesey will face a 6.9% hike as the price of becoming part of a new Gwynedd Council; Conwy taxpayers will pay 6.1% more; in Pembrokeshire council tax bills will soar by 9%; Newport by 6.5%; whilst the price for residents of Caerphilly of a merger with Blaenau Gwent will be 10.1% extra on their bills.

Will there be a dampening mechanism to protect taxpayers? If so how long will it last? How will it be paid for? Will the cost of that mechanism be top-sliced from existing council budgets or will the Welsh Government find new money to pay for it?

There are many more questions to be answered. The Local Government Minister made a statement to the Welsh Local Government Association conference a few weeks ago in which she said that the council elections in 2017 will go-ahead on the current boundaries.

However she also promised incentives for those councils that wanted to voluntarily merge. Their councillors will have an extra year in office, a six-year term before facing the electorate on new ward boundaries in 2018. The catch is that there will be less of them, so some will see their career in local government come to an end without a ballot being cast.

Furthermore, it is intended to realign the local council elections across Wales so despite volunteer councillors having a longer term in office up to 2018, this will be balanced by a subsequent shorter term. Some incentive.

We are still waiting for details of when the newly merged councils will face their first elections on new boundaries, whether councillors will serve for a four or five year term, how many councillors will serve on each of the new authorities, whether there will be shadow councils, and whether the intention is to keep local government elections and Welsh Assembly elections separate.

From the point of view of services, the fundamental question is how the Welsh Government intend to address the very complex formula that is currently used to distribute funds to councils. That has the potential to add significant complexity to the whole process of mergers.

Finally, what about community councils? There are over 700 of these bodies, some substantial in size and budget, delivering local services, others representing a few hundred people. In my view there needs to be some rationalisation of these bodies so that if they wish and if it is desirable, they can pick up the slack created by the much bigger county councils and take on local service delivery at community level.

When the First Minister makes his statement on Tuesday, he will do so knowing that these and many more questions will remain unanswered for some time to come. If we are to resolve them however, then he needs to adopt a far more consensual approach and work more closely with others.

There is political agreement that there are too many councils and that something needs to be done about it. It is at that point that consensus breaks down. Compromise is possible but only if the Welsh Government is prepared to make concessions and to listen to others. This week will be the first test as to how far they are willing to go in bringing others with them on this agenda.

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