Why Labour Won’t Re-organise Local Government

There are now 56 council executives in Wales earning over £100,000 a year, and a further 66 earning in excess of £75,000 per year. There are different ways of looking at these figures. In the Wales Online article I’m quoting from, ‘the TaxPayers’ Alliance co-ordinator for Wales, Lee Canning, said frontline staff were those providing the important services that need protection, adding: “That’s what taxpayers pay for”‘. Seeing as the TaxPayers Alliance is a Conservative and Unionist Party organisation, we can dismiss immediately the simpering bollocks about “frontline staff”. We can also dismiss the comments of Steve Thomas, representing the secretive Welsh Local Government Association, a Labour organisation, which exists to defend such salaries.

LG reorganisation table

Personally, I’ve never been driven by socialist envy politics; and because I don’t support any political party I don’t engage in hypocritical points-scoring. In fact, I am quite relaxed about a chief executive earning £200,000 (inc. pension package) a year for running a Welsh local authority. The reason I criticise the situation we have today is because we don’t need 22 local authorities in a country of three million people. Eight local authorities would be enough. (My suggestion is on the left. Click to enlarge.) There are few now who don’t agree that we need fewer councils, and I have not heard anyone defend the 22-council model for a long time. Which means we are looking at the administrative equivalent of a dead man walking, with no one prepared to apply the coup de grâce.

Almost every week we get fresh evidence of how dysfunctional our local authorities are, and how they are no longer able to cope. If it’s not some gauleiter chief executive making a grab for untrammeled power, then it’s the twenty-first century equivalent of smoke-filled rooms in which a self-elected ‘cabinet’ cuts deals detrimental to the best interests of the people. As for providing acceptable services, both Merthyr and Blaenau Gwent have been stripped of responsibility for education. Telling us the Welsh Government accepts that many of our councils are too small to provide the full range of services, which explains why for a few years it has been urging ‘co-operation’ . . . but no one listened.

The attitude of the Welsh Government today can be summed up by, ‘Yes, we agree, things must change . . . but not yet’. In fact, nothing is promised until after the next Assembly elections in 2016. Though in the hope of killing time, and perhaps being seen to be doing something, the Welsh Government has now set up a body glorying in the name of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery. Which an old conservative like me finds rather touching. For while this may be New Labour it is respectful of Welsh political tradition – ‘If you want to kick a problem into the long grass, set up a Commission’.

The main argument used by the Labour Government up to now to explain its inertia has been that there will be costs attached to local government re-organisation. Which of course is true, but look at it this way. There will be costs to local government reorganisation whether it’s done in 2019 or 2015; so why not do it sooner rather than later, and save us four years of wasted funding on a system we know no longer delivers? If the Labour Party had pulled its finger out we could have had elections to the new authorities on the same day as the Assembly elections in May 2016. It might not be too late.

Of course, the real reason for Labour’s inaction is that reducing the number of councils will result in culling a few hundred of its councillors . . . and there’s no clipsuch thing as ‘voluntary redundancy’ or ‘natural wastage’ when it comes to Labour councillors. They’re there ’til the Grim Reaper drags them – still trying to fill in that last expenses claim form – to the great council chamber in the sky. The latest smokescreen being tried on a gullible media to disguise this truth is the suggestion that the current local authorities have different council tax bandings, and so harmonisation would be required. Yes, obviously. Are we expected to accept this as an insurmountable reason for not going ahead with local government re-organisation?

The AM chosen to deliver this bombshell was Mike Hedges. Hedges is a former Leader of Swansea council. Just about the most uninspiring leader a city was ever lumbered with. (Why did it have to be the city of my dreams?) But a perfect exemplar for the decline in quality to be found in the Swansea Labour Party that opened the gates to the invaders I have dealt with in previous posts. I say “the AM chosen” because I don’t believe Hedges came up with this thought on his lickle own. He is simply the messenger.

But the real message is this: Wales is lumbered with a local government system that is causing increasing damage and expense but, in order to serve its own selfish interests, Labour is prevaricating over dealing with the issue; with the result that all of us, from the oldest to the youngest, are paying the price. Yet another example of Labour when in office using its power to serve the interests of the Labour Party, rather than serving Wales.

UPDATE 21.05.13: I am indebted to Glyn Erasmus for this table (Microsoft Excel) showing the current Council Tax Band D rate for each local authority and the differences between the various authorities I suggest for merger. Glyn also suggests that Monmouthshire could be linked with Powys. I can see where he’s coming from, they have a lot in common; but a merger would result in a unit looking rather like Chile. Or perhaps our Krajina!

It may say something about Wales, and the Labour Party, that our poorest areas seem to have the highest council tax rates. Note though that Swansea, Cardiff and Caerphilly still have relatively low levels of Band D Council Tax; so it will be interesting to see how long this lasts, now that Labour is back in control of these authorities.

In the case of Caerphilly I suppose there’ll have to be an increase if only to pay for the secret deal Labour did to bump up the salaries of the council managers. In Cardiff, with Russell Goodwage back in charge as puppet-master, we can safely anticipate an increase. While in the ugly lovely town there’s a new GLBT Officer to pay for, and other expenses to be loaded on the Jacks by councillors who’ve never worked but they do enjoy playing politics with other people’s money. Right on!

15 thoughts on “Why Labour Won’t Re-organise Local Government

  1. At face value the shrinking of ‘local’ council authorities down from 22 to 8 seems a good idea. Haven’t we been here before though? The previous experiment did not work – for various reasons – is there any reason to believe that by revisiting that mess it would be better the second time round?

    As an example, take Dyfed. The only remnant of Dyfed (the modern version) is now the annoying auto address functions on web-sites that use old databases that insist my county address is ‘Dyfed’ & not Ceredigion.

    It was originally created as an administrative county council on 1 April 1974 (therein lies an omen in the date) under the terms of the Local Government Act 1972, and covered approximately the same geographic extent as the ancient Principality of Deheubarth, although excluding the Gower Peninsula and the area west of the River Tawe. The choice of the name Dyfed was based on the historic name given to the region once settled by the Irish Déisi and today known as Pembrokeshire (the historic Dyfed never included Ceredigion and only briefly controlled Carmarthenshire – so in fact the modern Dyfed was a sham to start with – no one in Carmarthenshire and certainly not (the then) Cardiganshire related to it.

    On paper it seems logical and cost saving to make larger authorities and therefore have less of them, in reality it’s a bloody nightmare lurking in the shadows. People associate themselves with a natural area – e.g. I’m a Cardi & relate to Ceredigion, Dyfed ceased to be a natural area that I might have belonged to in 920 AD. If ever my ancestors did feel they belonged to it even then. We may be a small country but our natural population “areas” are just as numerous as other larger countries, just smaller in size.

    The same applies to the incessant tinkering with NHS authority areas – bigger no, no smaller, no bigger! In reality the bigger the area the more inefficient it becomes administratively. Ultimately in Wales you get to the Assembly, then Westminster, and worse still, the European Union – each larger administrative area gets progressively less efficient, and more importantly less cost effective and further removed from the people it serves. Big is NOT better – it’s MUCH worse. That is also why the most efficient and affluent nations for their size are small – this is the central plank of Alex Salmond’s argument for an independent Scotland, where he often uses countries like Finland as an example.

    I personally think the way to go is in the other direction, where community level councils (now fittingly tagged ‘Mickey Mouse’ councils – because they are powerless) should have the administrative powers over their own community with decision making – including ALL planning (especially when it comes to things like wind turbines) made at community level.

    The only argument I can find to counter this type of ‘nearer to home’ model is the duplication of administrative bureaucracy, but that’s a false argument. Surely what needs to be addressed there is the bureaucracy itself, not the body that’s forced to be a slave to it. We have created bureaucratic behemoths to create false jobs – not to be more efficient at what they need to do. That problem is not the size of an authority or the area it administers. Most larger organisation are usually more bureaucratically inefficient – just look at Brussels!

    1. Jac

      G, The problem with the re-organisation of the ’70s was that it gave us a two-tier system, remember? Yes, we had Dyfed as the county, but then we also had the district councils, such as Dinefwr, beneath Dyfed. This resulted in chaos and confusion. For example, I believe the counties were responsible for rubbish collection, but the districts for rubbish disposal. Or it may have been vice versa!

      The re-organisation of the mid-’90s was done to remedy this problem by giving us unitary authorities. But the problem was that those drawing the boundaries paid too much attention to local wheelers and dealers who wanted to be big fish in little pools. So we ended up with too many small (often poor) authorities that just cannot deliver. As I say in the post, Merthyr and Blaenau Gwent have already been stripped of their powers over education. Ynys Mon has just had elections after a few years of being run by Welsh Government Commissioners. Look at Carmarthenshire, Caerphilly . . .

      Small authorities, unable to do their jobs properly, will increasingly see their powers being taken over by the Welsh Government. Surely you don’t want to see that? So if only to keep the Welsh Government at bay we must have larger, more professionally run, units. Beneath these new authorities there would then be a strong case for beefing up the powers of community councils.

      1. Jac re. the last para. in your reply.

        Small authorities unable to do their job properly is not a symptom of size but of ability, professionalism, responsibility and competence. The ‘small’ authorities CAN be as professionally run as ANY ‘big’ authority. In fact experience dictates that the smaller the unit the more efficiently and better supervised it becomes.

        If you ran a business with six employees how well could you manage them Jac? How efficient would they be at their tasks with you in direct control? Now multiply that employee figure by a factor of 1000. Do you honestly think that you could then run an enterprise of 6,000 more efficiently than an unit of 6? Think about it. Small hospitals with properly managed staff under the eagle eye of a dedicated matron was the zenith of the NHS. It then got embroiled in the modern American model of ‘big is best’ and more cost effective. Wrong – hence the mess it’s in now. Council authorities mirror the same concept – keep it small, keep it professional, keep it well supervised by dedicated professionals – like your matrons of old.

        The problem with small local authorities at present is their current culture of ‘take’ mixed in with nepotism, favouritism & a total lack of professionalism amongst the councillors. Ceredigion & Ynys Môn are prime examples, basically run by a cabal of retired farmers and similarly minded ancients of days. They have very little understanding of anything outside their farmyard where they’ve lived all their lives in seclusion. If there was an incentive to utilize professional people in those roles and a proper modern structure to work to, then these type of councils COULD be super efficient, when compared to the lumbering big organisations that you propose.

        Pride is also a factor in all this. In my day as an engineer when I worked for the GPO (BT now), each Technical Officer cared for his own telephone exchange – he was the king of his own domain. We took pride in our work and viewed our exchanges as an extension and a reflection of ourselves – the competition was red hot – you took it very personally if your exchange was below the standard of exchanges run by your colleagues. Then BT came along, (fully attired in the clothes of the American style of Thatcher -loved ‘modern’ competitive giants) they bundled everything into a big centralized sack and cocked it up completely. BIG admin, BIG areas, lessened engineer control at local levels, lessened efficiency, BIG fuck-up.

        And you want BIG authorities? No pride in a specific area, less efficiency and remoteness from the people you serve. All for the sake of a few hundred thousand pounds savings in wages? Another fine mess say I.

    1. Jac

      I first heard this idea about 40 years ago, maybe longer. And I recall reading something recently about Emyr Llew and Adfer. So is the idea being revived? Whether it is or not, I see so many problems with simply linking Anglesey, Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire.

      For a start, what about the large English populations now resident in these areas? What about the damage being done to the language by tourism, higher education and other threats – would these threats be checked? Then there are towns like Beaumaris, Barmouth, Borth, which to all intents and purposes are English settlements, while there are Welsh-speaking areas left outside; the Conwy valley, north Pembrokeshire and other districts.

      Then there’s Cardiff to consider. Would the Welsh Government move jobs out of Cardiff? The jobs that have drawn so many Welsh speakers to the city from the Fro Gymraeg? Because without jobs, and without reserving jobs for Welsh speakers, then there’s no point in considering linking the four authorities.

      My view is that unless there is official recognition of the threats facing the language (some mentioned above), and commitment to reducing or removing those threats, then how councils are linked up or merged is irrelevant. On the other hand, if there is official recognition of the threats, and they are dealt with, then we don’t need a Welsh Gaeltacht.

    2. El T

      This ‘Arfor’ idea is a refreshing change but probably a bit too utopian. Perhaps it could’ve worked in the 1960s but I can’t see it working today.

      Mind you, I’d be happy for Plaid to become a regional party for what’s left of Y Fro Gymraeg. Perhaps it would allow space for a populist SNP style party (i.e no cultural baggage) that is capable of winning places like Merthyr, Neath, the Rhondda and so on.

    3. What Adam Price is advocating in his ARFOR paper is a Welsh Ghaeltacht. The principle is sound and the idea is an old one. In practice it doesn’t work, regardless of how good it appears on paper.

      In various forms the idea has been floated by CYIG and more recently by Cymuned – we based our foundation for the organisation on it. The end result is isolation and seclusion of our indigenous Welsh speaking communities. The pressures are stacked too heavily against it and the revitalisation proposed, (that theoretically should spread out from that area) never happens – it just stagnates. Sad but true. The answer to that problem is the re educating of our young citizens to trigger awareness and pride in their culture, history, language & heritage. That can only come from a new Welsh curriculum in the wake of independence.

  2. Robin

    I see that Cardiff’s chief executive, having just spent a fortune restructuring his senior management team, has decided to resign. This probably goes against the grain, Jac, but I think rate-paying Cardiffians deserve our sympathy.

  3. No responses? I rest my case then – let’s move on to the next topic Jac! I know from old times that we can agree on SOME THINGS! 😉

  4. Anne

    You say “In fact, I am quite relaxed about a chief executive earning £200,000 (inc. pension package) a year for running a Welsh local authority.”

    Um, why?

    1. Jac

      There are some chief executives earning that today. So why object to one earning that amount a few years down the line for running a bigger authority? The peanuts and monkeys argument isn’t entirely wrong. It’s just that in Wales we’ve tended to pay top whack and still end up with monkeys.

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