Welsh Conservatives Debate: Local Government Reform
Gareth Bennett AM
Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)
Thanks to the Conservatives for bringing today’s debate. The proposed local government reorganisation—or rather the latest version of it—is a big issue, and it’s bound to be controversial. Whatever change a Minister decides to make to the composition of a local council, somebody will complain about it. So, to be fair to the Minister, as I said at the last Minister’s questions, whatever he does, it’s bound to be controversial, as you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Or to use another metaphor, you can’t smoke the fags without breaking open the fag packet.
That said, the Welsh Government have really made a meal of this reorganisation over the past three years. We are on to the third different Minister and the third different plan, although, as Siân Gwenllian pointed out the last time we discussed this, the latest version is not so very different to the original plan, which was Leighton Andrews’s model.
So, we do have to acknowledge, as the Conservatives are doing with today’s motion, that this whole saga has created a lot of uncertainty among the staff who work in local government. In some cases, it can lead to a kind of paralysis, whereby councils can’t really plan on a major scale as they have no idea whether they will still exist in a few years’ time, and it can also make officer recruitment difficult.
Another issue raised by the WLGA is that the latest plan interferes with the regional working that many councils were already pursuing with other bodies and authorities, and I think that this is also a valid point. We also have a lack of clarity over whether the proposed new, larger councils will actually deliver cost benefits, which is the main reason for creating them in the first place. So, in UKIP, we think these are valid points, and we will be supporting the Conservative motion today.
Lynne Neagle just spoke about the need for a base of evidence before we undergo any reorganisation, and I think a lot of the points that she made were also very valid. They were also touching on things that Mike Hedges mentioned last time. He reminded us that every time we have a local government reorganisation in Wales, which is roughly every 20 years, we are told that this one is the definitive one, and the reorganisation to end all reorganisations, but this never actually turns out to be the case. We’ve had the reorganisations in 1974, and again in 1995, and now another one is looming, and after each reorganisation, within a few years, we hear from Government that the councils in Wales are too small and they aren’t sustainable. At this rate, we will end up with another reorganisation in 20 years’ time, which will leave us with four or five councils. I’m afraid that once you get to that level, you are really moving away from any meaningful sense of people being represented by local ward councillors, and you are merging together areas with no real historic connection and that may be completely different in terms of their economies and their demographics, which is what we are in danger of doing with this current reorganisation.
The other point that has been raised, again by Lynne Neagle, is to do with the actual cost benefits, and Mike Hedges also made this point last time. We haven’t had any real cost-benefit analysis, so we don’t know whether larger councils will actually deliver the savings that the Government is promising. We’ve already seen mergers of health boards in Wales, and we’ve ended up with larger bodies, which don’t seem to be universally performing particularly well. So, the worst aspect of this local government reorganisation is that it may cause more job losses, deliver fewer services to the public, and still not save any meaningful money in terms of councils’ operating costs.
We do agree with the Welsh Government that we are consulting on a Green Paper on this, and we agree with them broadly that 22 local councils is not sustainable. So, we actually agree in very broad terms with their amendment.
What we do want is more shared working, but we know that there is shared working between different councils going on already. To some extent, this has been driven by financial imperatives because the councils are dealing with reduced budgets, so they have to pursue shared working in order to reduce costs.
A potential problem is that shared working is taking different forms. In some areas, two neighbouring councils are working together, in other cases, three or four different councils are pooling resources. And to add to the mix, we now have two city regions in Wales and two other regional areas connected to growth deals. On top of that, we also have strategic development plans coming in that will require another combination of different councils. So, there is a danger that, unless the Welsh Government Minister keeps a firm grip on this, the pattern of local and regional government in Wales could suddenly become very piecemeal, very complex, and for the voter, very confusing. So, the Minister does have a major role to play in guiding local government. However, we would prefer this to include a larger measure of consultation with the affected councils.
So, we do agree with the Conservatives; we think they’re right to be raising these issues today and we do support their motion. Diolch yn fawr iawn.