Thursday, 1 September 2011

Local democracy RIP?

Plans by the Welsh Government to force the 22 local authorities in Wales to effectively merge their education, social services and aspects of economic development have been described as backdoor re-organisation by some pundits.

The move towards regional collaboration has been accelerating over the past few years. This would seem to take it a step further in moving it from a voluntary to a compulsory basis.

There are obvious benefits in terms of economies of scale, pooling of expertise and using best practice to improve services delivered by local authorities.

Cabinet has now backed the "Public Service reform: Promoting Regional Coherence" document, which proposes six regional bodies - one of which will cover the six councils in the North - that will deliver some of the core services that are currently delivered by local councils.

Politicians have tinkered with local government re-organisation in recent decades - moving from the 13 historic counties to a two-tier system in the 1970s before reverting to a single-tier set of 22 councils in the 1990s. This new proposal effectively takes us back to the two-tier model, with one key difference.

Back in the days of Clwyd County Council and the various district and borough councils such as Wrecsam Maelor and Delyn, there were direct elections to both tiers of local government and both delivered specific services.

This proposal will mean that key services - education being perhaps the most vital of all council services - being delivered on a regional basis without any direct democratic accountability. It is also unclear how the varying policies - for example on the Welsh language - of the different councils would be preserved. The gulf in practice between Gwynedd and Flintshire on this one issue will raise some very interesting points.

There are potential benefits. The small size of some councils means that there is an over-reliance on outside consultants for expertise when collaboration could mean in-house expertise being developed. This is already happening in terms of legal services across the North and is to be welcomed.

In education, the geographical anomalies of cross-border transport (I'm thinking of Chirk children going to Ysgol Dinas Bran) would be ironed out. It's a point I raised at a public meeting in Chirk two years ago - I thought it would take five years!

Long-term, it's probable that Welsh Government impatience with councils will see some small authorities being swallowed up by larger neighbours - Gwynedd and Ynys Mon already share a chief executive and will have a joint Local Development Plan for example.

But failings in some areas does not excuse a wholesale shake-up that will make decision-making more remote than it currently is from the people. If education policy is decided for the whole of the North by a group of councillors meeting in Colwyn Bay, how easy will it be for people in the Ceiriog Valley or Abersoch to lobby and protest? And when do

Gareth Hughes makes the point well:

"One can understand the impatience of Welsh Government with the current local government structure. But to reorganise by stealth is not the way forward. A coherent set of proposals need to be produced and the public need to be involved in deciding how services should be delivered in the future."


Cibwr said...

The democratic deficit is the main issue with this, I have no problem with regional authorities being created, provided that they are democratically constituted. The proposals are a fudge at best and at worst profoundly undemocratic.

A few days ago I put my thoughts to paper - which you can see on my blog

Some feedback would be welcome.

Draig said...

It's a bit more complicated than that, because we actually have a three tier system. We have this new proposed layer (rightly pointed out - unelected - Quangos?). We have the existing layer (without certain core services - how does that work?) and we have town and community councils. Three tiers.

The Assembly has been gradually beefing up the functions of town and community councils, to some extent over the heads of the bigger LAs. There is a growing trend for Town and Community Councils to form clusters and take over key services from LAs. Of course, there's nothing systematic in this either - it's a total mishmash. There needs to be a full public debate and consultation - will we get it?