Councils of Despair

Few people seemed to have noticed the passing last Friday of the deadline for our 22 local authorities to submit their Expression of Interest (EoI) on agreed council mergers to the ‘Welsh’ Government. Only 3 EoIs were received, covering just 6 local authorities. It seems that Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen would be happy to tie the knot, as would the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend, while in the north, the only two to have taken the first, hesitant steps to the altar are Conwy and Denbighshire.Population density

To help you with what follows, and to give the current lie of the land, the map on the right shows the distribution of our population (this can be enlarged by clicking). It tells us that, in the north, the population is concentrated in Wrecsam, Deeside and the coastal strip; while in the south it’s Swansea Bay, Cardiff, Newport and the Valleys. The area in between the two, and further west, is more sparsely populated or, in some areas, almost uninhabited. You will notice a rough corellation between population distribution and the size and configuration of the existing councils.

It’s also worth remembering that certain constraints were put on the exercise by the Williams Commission. Which, as the BBC reported ” . . . recommends the new councils should be within current health board and police force areas and also not cross the geographical areas governing eligibility for EMap1 (eng)U aid.” So let us look at a few more maps showing. top to bottom, the EU aid map, which also shows the current council boundaries, the health board areas, and the police force areas. (Again, all can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

Looking at the maps we see that the highest level of EU aid does not cross local authority boundaries. The health boards also keep to local authority boundaries. However the police forces, while also observing local authority boundaries group them differently to the  health boards. (Though other than pandering to the ‘Monmouthshire is English’ lobby I have no idea what the justification is for retaining the Gwent Police.) Finally, just for fun, and to show how silly it is to stick rigidly to the existing boundaries of other organisations I have thrown in (below right) the fire and rescue service map. While also respecting local authority boundaries this shows yet another way of dividing ufire and rescue servicesp the country.

Also bear in minHealth boardsd that these divisions have not been handed down to us from our ancestors on tablets of stone. Take the seven health boards, which came into effect in 2009. These replaced the seven Local Health Trusts and the twenty-two Local Health Boards that went all the way back to 2003. (So are we due another reorganisation in 2015?) The point to be taken from these various maps is that for different purposes Wales is divided up in different ways, but each and every organisation dealt with here follows local authority boundaries, thereby establishing their primacy. So rather than screw up local government reorganisation, again, by being too restrictive with the ground rules, let’s be more flexible – get the new local authority boundaries right then – if necessary – let other bodies reconfigure their boundaries to fit the local government map, not the other way round.

A final consideration may bepolice forces that some of these other boundaries may not exist for much longer. For example, many people believe it’s only a matter of time before Wales has a single police force (like Scotland). Perhaps we’ll also have a national fire and rescue service. And as for EU Structural Funds, well, if the ‘Welsh’ Government uses this funding wisely, rather than squandering it on its sponging cronies in the Third Sector, then this will be another internal division that disappears. And even if ‘Welsh’ Labour does make the same mistake for a third time the 2014 – 2020 round is the last tranche of Structural Funds we’ll see. So it would be foolish to use boundaries that may be gone in three or four years time to determine the map of a local government structure we hope will last at least a couple of generations.

Even though the ‘Welsh’ Government only received three Expressions of Interest that doesn’t mean that other local authorities haven’t been discussing mergers and suggesting options. The most interesting proposal I know of is the paper put out by Swansea council, which stated as its preferred option a merger with Neath Port Talbot and, more surprisingly, linking with Llanelli, and also taking in part of Powys, presumably the area around Ystradgynlais at the top of the Swansea Valley. This would create a council with a population of some half a million and would obviously be the core for the proposed Swansea city region.Swansea Bay

Clearly, Swansea, Neath, Llanelli and Port Talbot is a ‘natural’ unit, already a contiguous urban-industrial complex. That Swansea should have made this proposal its number one option suggests to me that preliminary talks have already taken place with Labour councillors in Llanelli, who are known to be unhappy with their party’s leadership on Carmarthenshire county council and the coalition with the Independent Party. (Yes, it is a party.) For Neath Port Talbot the Williams Commission mooted a merger with Bridgend, yet Bridgend, as we know, has already agreed a merger with the Vale of Glamorgan, for which the Commission had Cardiff lined up as a suitable match. The full Williams Commission recommendations can be seen in the table below (click to enlarge).

Looking north, we see that the Commission suggests mergers giving us three authorities instead of the current six, yet others are calling for just two, or even a single authority for the whole north. If we went for two, then presumably Conwy would join with Gwynedd and Ynys Môn while Denbighshire would link up with Wrecsam and Flintshire (maybe the latter authority can be called West Cheshire). Though perhaps the biggest problem is what to do with Powys, currently our largest authority in terms of area but with a population less than that of Wrecsam or Bridgend. Though with the relentless policy of colWilliams Comm 12onisation now being implemented its population is guaranteed to rise faster than almost any other part of the country. Looking again at some of the other recommendations you have to wonder at the reasoning behind them. Why link Pembrokeshire with Ceredigion but leave Carmarthenshire as a stand-alone authority?

Another problematic authority is obviously Monmouthshire. For many of those living in Monmouthshire being part of Wales is bad enough, but having to link up with burger-eating oiks in Newport or the Heads of the Valleys is just too too much. For such people the preferred option would probably be to join Herefordshire or Gloucestershire, which is why I suggest linking Monmouthshire with Blaenau Gwent, Newport, Torfaen (and perhaps part of Caerffili) in a new authority with ‘Gwent’ as the sole official name.

The Williams Commission and the silly restrictions it imposed on the exercise – no crossing existing council, police or health bouundaries – made it impossible to come up with the best solution for Welsh local government. Another concern I have is that in asking for ‘voluntary’ mergers, who exactly is being asked? The answer seems to be whoever ruEight countiesns the council, be that councillors or officers, which means that we shall end up with political stitch-ups. For while I support the plan for the new Swansea Bay authority I am not blind to its attractions for the Labour Party. And where is the public consultation – or will the public be invited to give its views on done deals? Has there been input from business and other sectors of Welsh life? And isn’t the exercise somewhat undermined by Cardiff planning to leave Wales and join up with Bristol?

My view remains that the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 threw out the baby with the bathwater. Admittedly, the two-tier system of 8 counties and 37 districts introduced in 1974 was a confusing and expensive mistake. But another mistake was made in 1994 when we should have kept the 8 county councils as the new unitary authorities instead of ditching them in favour of 22 new unitary councils, including that unworkable sop to Labour sentimentality, Merthyr. Had it been done properly in 1994 we wouldn’t be discussing local government reorganisation again today.

That’s two huge and very expensive mistakes in the space of just forty years, and surely all the more reason to get it right this time rather than trying to do it on the cheap by sticking with existing boundaries we know will be changed, or even cease to exist, in the near future. So, my advice would be – with a few modifications, such as Swansea Bay – revert to the eight pre-1994 councils and have done with it.

24 thoughts on “Councils of Despair

  1. Red Flag

    Big mistake we made in Wales is to have a Welsh Assembly and not to reduce the number of MPs, councils and councillors. So we still have the same number of councils & councillors and the same number of MPs as well as all the Assembly members. So if our Assembly has taken control of X, Y & Z then what exactly are the councillors below them and the MPs above doing? Because their workload has been considerably reduced so surely their numbers should have been culled accordingly.

    In theory, England – without that extra layer of an Assembly, should be an administrative and governance shambles, but it isn’t. Wales is.

    1. Another problem, and one we’ll definitely encounter with local government reorganisation, is that ouir political representatives are motivated more by self-interest than any wish to serve the public.

  2. dafis

    Rhondda Cynon Taf(f) – who wants it ?, a difficult area starved of focussed remedies, haven for 3rd sector activities. A new Mid Glam would do the job nicely, as it could also do for Merthyr. Caerphilly currently stretches up to the Heads of the Valleys, simply because there is a “valley” mindset. Nonsense, it could go to Gwent or be divided back into its previous alignments. Gwent itself would be an amalgam of diverse communities, and the Anglo attitudes are just as prevalent among “down trodden” underclass as they are among the county set. Maybe the Swansea “region” makes sense with Llanelli absorbed from Sir Gar, and Upper Tawe from Powys. West Wales could then revert to Dyfed

    Nth Wales other than Gwynedd is a bit of a mystery to me in terms of logical alignments. Maybe Gwynedd for Nth West and Clwyd/Dinbych for Nth East taking in Wrexham etc.

    So we’d be back to 8 as you indicate, but nothing will be that easy I bet you, because going back to the same number even with slightly different boundaries and mandates will be more than most of the decision makers can swallow.

    Let’s be honest, if these things weren’t so expensive to manage it would be far better to have 12-20 authorities for localisation and delivery of services, built around a network of common services provision , but with greedy tossers like James ,Parry Jones and sundry others thinking 200k is the going rate and politicians on councils and in the Bay lacking backbone & moral fibre to straighten them out, we have to look at the costs and economies of scale ( if & where they may exist ! )

    This is a big headache, further complicated by the electoral demographics, Labour very wary of agreeing to anything that might tip balance of power away from them. Also voter apathy is running at criminal levels yet council tax is a sore point with most of those that have to pay it – can anyone explain that one !

    1. Red Flag

      Gwynedd should be expanded to include Ynys Mon (Anglesey) and Conwy. Then everything east (Denbighshire, Flintshire, Wrecsam) of that should be Clwyd. 60 county councillors for each of the two is enough (Gwynedd as is has more than that now, Ynys Mon another 40 or so and likewise Conwy. Then God klnows how many in Denbs, Flints and Wrecsam – probably well over 150 making in excess of 300 county councillors currently in North Wales, plus assembly, plus MPs. Farcical). Then they need to somehow line it up with WA and Westminster Constituencies so that it is logical.

    2. Mid Glamorgan is a natural unit, but it’s a poor area with a low council tax income. But then, if you try to link rich and poor areas there’s an outcry from the rich areas that they are ‘subsidising’ poor areas. Just wait and hear Monmouthshire squeal.

  3. By definition local government is meant to be just that – local. And whatever the claims for a Swansea bay ‘region’ its difficult to see an authority located in swansea feeling very ‘local’ to people in neath, port talbot, llanelli or ystradgynlais. Also lets be clear these proposed mergers and changes to local government in Wales arent occurring as a result of some serious democratic defecit or major failing on the part of welsh local government, They are occurring as a result of year on year cuts in real terms to the money westminister ‘gives’ to wales (or ‘england’s money’ as our genial first minister prefers to calls it)

    But for what its worth something along the lines jac has proposed – reverting to the eight pre-1994 councils with a with a few modifications such as a Swansea Bay region – would seem to be the most practical solution to this crisis given where we are right now ie the cuts to wales budget from Westminister are set to get worse in the coming years, while (thanks largely to welsh labour intransigence) it will be some time before we will be able to raise significant amounts of our own money in Wales.

    Course hard pressed welsh local authorities could take the ‘imaginative’ approach of Swansea’s new council leader – labour’s Rob Stewart – and flog off any prime ‘real estate’ it might be sitting on. Course the fact that lucrative spot concerned might just be home to swansea’s main public library – and which only moved to the civic centre a few years ago – would appear to be neither here nor there to stewart and his number crunchers .

    http://www.southwales-eveningpost.co.uk/Swansea-s-seafront-Civic-Centre-sold-month/story-25098000-detail/story.html

    Though if this report tucked away in the business section of WOL in october is anythng to go by a ‘deal’ for the land’s sale may already have been struck between swansea’s labour council and the Welsh Assembly.

    http://www.walesonline.co.uk/business/business-opinion/how-sale-swansea-councils-civic-8010696

    We are of course not trying to suggest for one moment that a welsh labour local authority or the welsh labour government would ever get involved in any questiionable land deals 😉 Perish the very thought.

    http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/local-news/minister-wont-councillors-view-russell-4891642

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-23304989

    1. I would have no objection to seeing the civic centre sold off, it was a mystery to me why the Guildhall was abandoned. And there’s another jewel a little further along in the form of the Rec’.

  4. The Earthshaker

    Everyone’s forgotten the Williams Commission wasn’t solely set up to look at LA boundaries but to look at the best way to deliver public services in Wales because budgets are being slashed.

    But between the poorly researched and written Williams report, the lazy welsh media who latched on to the number of councils and self interested political parties we aren’t discussing the best way for local services to be run and what democratic structures should be wrapped around them, 22 is too many certainly by why start with numbers.

    Ironically COSLA the Scottish equivalent of WLGA has written a much better report on local services delivery and democratising local councils for Scotland (and it’s easier to read), it recommends almost the opposite of everything in the Williams Commission, is it too much to think that the WLGA or Welsh Government would follow this sort of model and make local means local?

    The report’s writer had seven key principles “All of our thinking has come down to some fundamental principles that we believe must underpin Scotland’s democratic future:

    – The principle of sovereignty: democratic power lies with people and communities who give some of that power to governments and local governments, not the other way round

    – The principle of subsidiarity: decisions should be taken as close to communities as possible, and local governance has to be right shape and form for the people and the places it serves

    – The principle of transparency: democratic decisions should be clear and understandable to communities, with clean lines of accountability back to communities

    – The principle of participation: all communities must be able to participate in the decision making that affects their lives and their communities

    – The principle of spheres not tiers of governance: different parts of the democratic system should have distinct jobs to do that are set out in ‘competencies’, rather than depend on powers being handed down from ’higher’ levels of governance

    – The principle of interdependency: every part of the democratic system has to support the others, and none can be, or should seek to be, self-contained and self-sufficient

    – The principle of wellbeing: the purpose of all democracy is to improve opportunities and outcomes for the individuals and communities that empower it

    The report is here http://www.localdemocracy.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Final-Report-August-2014.pdf

    1. I have written elsewhere on this blog that the rise of Ukip, that an English nationalist party is challenging Labour in its heartlands, is a massive indictment of Plaid Cymru which might as well pack up and go home.

  5. Albert Hill

    The 22 county idea was a Thatcherite one whbureaucracysaw the role of the council as a procurer of services from the public sector. Hence the disappearance of roadmen, direct labour departments, council homes, cleaners etc. Has this deLondonered cheaper, more efficient services? I doubt it very much.

    While trade unionism has largely disappeared amongst the blue collar workers whose jobs have been hived off to the private sector this is not the case amongst the white collar workers. Here it has emerged and is dedicated to maintaining and enhancing the role of its members, often at the expense of the wider community. The public sector is in danger of becoming a parasite, with full carparks at county hall, while the high street is boarded up and the young are jobless or working in Tesco and few under 30 can afford a house.

    Because they manage big budgets the council elite demand big salaries comparable with capitalist enterprises who don’t have a guaranteed income stream or tasks laid down for them by legislation. The end result some of our Welsh chief executives earn more than the presidents of small European countries.

    No-one outside the right seems interested in criticising the bureaucracy, although limiting their growth and power is a necessary task for any progressive force.

    How many councils should Wales have? Does it matter when we refuse to question fundamental issues such as a fairer system of financing, agency v activity, limiting the bureaucracy, their role as servants of the Welsh people rather than London.

  6. Albert Hill

    First para should read “which saw the role” and “had this led to cheaper”

    Small phone, big fingers – apologies

    1. dafis

      Won’t argue with that observation green dragon. However right now UKIP are driving attitudes, even policies where they exist, and the other major Brit parties are reacting and competing for the same pitch when they should be adopting a hostile stance if they had any morality left in them. If UKIP flipped and said “bring more in”, you’d see Labour leading the lurch in that direction !!
      The entire spectrum of Anglo Brit politics is now severely damaged by the years of corruption and lack of any attempt to lay foundations for a future. Society built on Dependency culture on the one hand and huge greed on the other are all symptoms of the same malaise at the centre, probably most exposed in the behaviours of Blair & Brown,and continued by Cameron and Osborne. Falange &Co would be a minor diversion but essentially same thread of distraction politics while the elite minority fill their boots wallets and anything else to hand, with rest of us “focussed” on keeping foreigners out ( of Britain ) and other “perceived ” problems created by the ruling elites. The threat to Wales ? It is seen by the UKIPpers and the other Parties as a sideshow to manage as they see fit. That position will get worse if as expected the SNP will serve notice with a sound electoral thumping for the others in 2015

      Falange “appointed” his Provincial Governor at Margam yesterday, not Welsh ( good ) not elected ( what would you expect, probably 1 of few that could spell his own name ) . Sign of the times

  7. Well, at least the VoGons had the sense to want to get into bed with Bridgend – with whom they at least share some similarities – rather than the Welsh Assembly-preferred option of Cardiff. If that happens, guess just how many services and how much improvement the Vale is likely to see! (Clue – not a lot!)

  8. Worth pointing that under the current system the Welsh Government could abolish all local government in Wales if it so wanted. Such a state of affairs surely cant be right? Indeed it’s a situation which apes the draconian and anti democratic powers which enabled Thatcher to dissolve the GLC for example.

    So lets hope that out of all this talk of ‘re-oganisation’ will come legislation at the Assembly which will guarantee the future independence of local government in Wales.

    Returning to Ukip, and after listening to Farage being interviewed on radio Wales earlier today, we feel bound to ask have Ukip ‘gone native” on devolution? http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04q0k9d

  9. adarynefoedd

    Size matters in local government, the main issues are how to manage volatile Social Services and Education budgets.Although there is pious talk about democratic accountability and transparency, the truth is that the major items are buying care for vulnerable children and adults and special education.

    The assessment at the time of LGR in 1996 was that most Welsh LAs are too small to do the business and so it has proved true. The bigger, the better I say having worked for many years in a mega (and well run) Shire council in England and then in Wales, I know that a large Council is much more capable of riding the storm. (and employing those specialists to make the system work properly).

    Various attempts to set up joint commissioning have usually failed whether between local authorities or with health (‘consortia’) and IMHO the only way forward is a small number of very large Councils eg North Wales, Dyfed-Powys, Gwent, South Glam, Mid Glam, West Glam, a minimum population of 300,000. Thankfully the Minister seems to be moving in this direction. There is also a case for looking at an All Wales service for areas such as Social Services and Education and addressing the divide between the health service and Social Services for vulnerable adults. We lack an All Wales approach to a number of vulnerable groups, result is that services are bought at vast expense in England or the user gets a poorer service.

    Bigger, more strategic LAs could also address better some of the really difficult problems.

    1. Anonymous

      and there lies one of the big dilemmas – size matters, yet “local” goverment becomes very centralised as soon as you create these large authorities, and ceases to be “local”..

  10. dafis

    more like a bit of opportunistic Falangist posturing, he’s hardly likely to admit to not giving a shit about Wales really, is he ? . He’d be happy to have a “presence” at the Assembly, but his main goal is to gain influence at Westminster where he knows there’s a load of old Tory die hards happy to form up some sort of deal with UKIP just to keep their party leadership on its toes.

    Welsh Labour won’t do away with all those cushy numbers that are held by their members out in the country. Their big dilemma is how to fiddle/reorganise in a way which maxes the return to the Party ( or minimizes the damage ! ) No other party can expect much in the way of demographic payoffs. There again, who deserves it when they have all been pretty rubbish at stimulating voter interest for years.

  11. dafis

    1.Sorry to keep piling it on, but the welter of stories now breaking about the fiddling and groping wing of UKIP, i.e most of them, must provide some ammo for any self respecting Welsh politicians who are minded to “repel boarders”, or do they too have so many skeletons in their cupboards that they find it easier to sit back and “let matters take their course”. I wonder.

    2. On the evolution of local government, ( you won’t get a revolution for obvious reasons ), the Assembly would do well to rebuild terms of reference, mandates or whatever you wish to call them to place emphasis on service delivery and away from score keeping, bureaucracy and other forms of self justifying activity.
    The crap spoken about size of budgets under the control of assorted jobsworths is worthy of “yes Minister” at its best, the fact is that most of these people operate within all sorts of boundaries which are quite acceptable to the risk averse types that inhabit these roles. Rolling out real improvements in service by applying simple efficiency measures would be an essential goal, but likely to be thwarted by people who can only dream up obstacles and objections. Thus, we will keep on living with a paper chasing, ass covering , pension ( and severance) accumulating “elite”.

  12. There was a bit of a throwaway item on BBC Wales news this evening about 10 councils getting together to form a “South East Wales” supercouncil, but no further details about which councils are involved. Anyone know the inside track on this?

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