Reforming local government

27 May 2016

Article by Rhys Iorwerth, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Throughout the Fourth Assembly, there was much debate about restructuring Welsh local government. Will the new Welsh Government finally press ahead with such plans?

Since 1996, Wales has had 22 county or county borough councils (or ‘local authorities’ as they are also often called). As financial pressures mount, politicians have increasingly discussed whether we need them all. They have also debated the best alternative if 22 is too many. Whether we will still have this number by the end of the Fifth Assembly is therefore very much in doubt.

Local Authority Boundary-08

How eight authorities could look

The last Welsh Government’s plans

In 2013, the Welsh Government set up the Williams Commission to look across the board at how public services were delivered in Wales. The Commission’s report was wide-ranging, but one of its headline conclusions was that many local authorities were too small to perform effectively. It suggested that the Welsh Government should merge the 22 county and county borough councils to form between 10 and 12 authorities, and to do so ‘swiftly and decisively’.

The last Welsh Government initially responded by saying it preferred a 12-authority model. This changed in June 2015 when Leighton Andrews, the then Minister for Public Services, published a map showing the Welsh Government was now in favour of either eight or nine authorities instead.

In November 2015 the Welsh Government published the draft Local Government (Wales) Bill. This contained provisions to enable mergers, as well as other major reforms to how Welsh local government works. According to the Minister, ‘severe and unsustainable financial pressures’ on public services meant that ‘inaction [was] not an option’. While the Welsh Government acknowledged that the mergers could cost up to £254 million, it also claimed that they could result in savings of up to £915 million over 10 years, if completed by 2020-21.

A consultation on the draft Bill closed in February 2016, and the then Minister announced in March 2016 that he was analysing the responses. After being appointed First Minister in May 2016, Carwyn Jones suggested in media reports that the eight or nine-council model could be difficult to take forward, but that he would continue to seek reform of some kind.

The response to the merger plans

Local Authority Boundary-09

How nine authorities could look

The Williams Commission recommended merging the 22 authorities along their current boundaries, rather than redrawing the local government map from scratch. The last Welsh Government agreed with this approach, claiming it would achieve the benefits of having larger authorities without the bigger disruption of more fundamental boundary changes.

Others, such as the Fourth Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee, claimed that form should follow function. This means that, before restructuring, it is necessary to assess what type of services local government should be delivering in a devolved Wales. The Committee suggested that only then can it be possible to come up with a sensible map and an optimum number of authorities. It also claimed that this would be more sustainable in the long term than simply grouping together the current council blocks.

Local accountability

Some critics are concerned that having eight or nine large authorities could risk undermining local accountability and the relationship between the councils and the communities they serve. In its draft Bill, the last Welsh Government proposed creating ‘area committees’ to give localities a voice within the larger councils, but there are doubts about how effective this might be.

In a 2014 discussion document, the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) proposed a different approach. It suggested retaining the 22 authorities to preserve a sense of place and localism, while creating four regional bodies to deliver major services. These regional bodies could be modelled on the combined authorities approach adopted in England, and could allow certain services to be delivered more effectively on a larger scale without impacting on local links.

Others have suggested that reforming and empowering community councils – the lowest tier of local government in Wales – could solve issues around localism if there are to be fewer and larger county and county borough councils.

The relationship between central and local government

While structural and geographical issues have often grabbed the headlines, local government itself has called for a more fundamental shift in the relationship between it and the Welsh Government. Devolution has changed the way Wales is governed, so the councils see a need to re-evaluate and redefine local government’s role in delivering services.

In its In Defence of Localism document, the WLGA criticised the last Welsh Government for ‘developing a more centralised and assertive approach’ to public services. It suggested that local government should be given more ‘freedom and flexibility to deliver services according to local circumstances’, and there is no doubt that these calls will continue.

The new Welsh Government will therefore have major decisions to make on the number and size of our local authorities. But it is also going to face ongoing pressure from the sector for more far-reaching change.

Key sources

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Discussing the new local government map for Wales

01 July 2015

Article by Rhys Iorweth, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Tomorrow (2 July), Leighton Andrews, the Minister for Public Services, appears before the Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee for a general scrutiny session with Members.

With the Minister having published the Welsh Government’s preferred map of new local government areas on 17 June, there will be no points for guessing what’s likely to be the main topic of discussion.

Since it formally responded to the Williams Commission report in July 2014, the Welsh Government has consistently stated that its preferred configuration for local government in Wales was the 12-council model proposed in the Williams report.

After giving “further consideration” to a “range of issues”, the Minister for Public Services has now proposed a configuration of either eight or nine local authorities (with the option of having either two or three councils in north Wales).

Maps of the Welsh Government’s proposed new local authority areas Maps of the Welsh Government’s proposed new local authority areas

The Minister has emphasised that his proposals are meant to “drive down the cost of politics and administration”, but has provided little detail about the “range of issues” that made the Welsh Government re-think its original preference.

During recent scrutiny work, the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee has heard evidence suggesting that large scale authorities are often better suited to deliver certain services – such as strategic planning, education, transport and social services. However, there also seems to be acknowledgement that larger authorities could carry the risk of undermining local accountability and the relationship between councils and the communities they serve.

As such, while there is general agreement that the current 22-council model is in need of reform, getting consensus on how that should be done is a much tougher task.

Critics might claim that, before producing any map and deciding on the future number of local authorities, the Welsh Government should have first reassessed what type of services local government should be delivering in a devolved Wales. Put another way, that form should follow function.

Since the current local government structure was created in 1996, there have been fundamental changes to the way Wales is governed. As such, local government representatives say that there is a need to redefine the relationship between central and local government, and to re-evaluate what local government’s role should be in the delivery of modern services.

In June 2014, the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) published its In Defence of Localism document, in which it criticised the Welsh Government for “developing a more centralised and assertive approach” to public services. It then suggested that local government should be given more “freedom and flexibility to deliver services according to local circumstances”.

The WLGA reiterated such calls at its annual conference on 18 July 2015, again posing the question “what is local government, and what do we want local government to do?”

The Welsh Government’s potential response would be that it has sought to address these very concerns in its February 2015 White Paper: Reforming Local Government: Power to Local People.

According to the Minister for Public Services, this White Paper “was very much about decentralisation” and “granting the general power of competence to local authorities and giving them the powers and responsibilities that they deserve and that they have requested”.

However, some would counter that only after redefining those powers and responsibilities can you come up with appropriate delivery structures. In other words, by producing a map before that process has been fully carried out, the Welsh Government could be said to be putting the cart before the horse.

This debate intensifies when considering that the current Welsh Government approach only goes as far as to merge the current local authority units along existing boundaries. Indeed, the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee has itself suggested that by looking more fundamentally at functions and boundaries, a more enduring and robust local government configuration for the future might be found.

Another interesting question is what happens next in the context of the Local Government (Wales) Bill, which is currently progressing through the Assembly. This is the first of two local government bills intended to deliver the reform process.

While the second Bill will contain the main merger proposals, and will only be published in draft form in the autumn, this first Bill is notable in the fact that:

  • As currently drafted, it still allows local authorities who wish to merge voluntarily – and early – to submit applications to do so;
  • It will enable the Minister to direct the Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales to start electoral reviews of the new proposed areas published in the recent map – and the Minister can do this as soon as the first Bill come into force (expected to be late this autumn).

The Minister has stated that the published map “is not a final decision” and merely a “platform” on which his party will campaign in the run-up to the 2016 Assembly elections. However, the first Bill as currently drafted could give the Minister the power to direct the Boundary Commission to start reviewing the electoral arrangements of the new areas before the end of this year. Indeed, the latest indications are that the Minister intends to consult on such directions shortly.

The above, of course, are not the only issues of interest. During passage of the Local Government (Wales) Bill, the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee has often discussed the potential costs of the merger programme. Issues around council tax harmonisation and use of the Welsh language within the new authorities have also been prominent. So have the implications for current collaborative and regional working, as well as staffing considerations.

The Committee’s meeting tomorrow will hopefully add some detail to what we already know about the Welsh Government’s proposals.

Images from Welsh Government (www.gov.wales)

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A Look at the Local Government (Wales) Bill

View this post in Welsh | Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg

A previous blogpost has set out the background as the Welsh Government embarks on reforming local government in Wales. This blogpost looks in more detail at potential issues around the Local Government (Wales) Bill, which is the first legislative step in that process.

(For more information on the Bill itself, the Research Service has just published a summary of its main provisions.)

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Local government reform: the process so far

View this post in Welsh | Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg

The past year has been an eventful one for local government in Wales. There have been headlines about reforming public services, reorganising authorities, voluntary mergers, White Papers, commissions, prospectuses and Bills. This blogpost tries to summarise in one place what’s been going on, and provides links to the key documents.

The main developments in the process so far can be set out as follows:

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Community and town councils: next in line?

01 August 2014

Article by Rhys Iorwerth, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Following the publication of the Williams Commission’s report in January 2014, there has been considerable focus on the proposals to reduce the number of principal authorities in Wales from the current 22 to between 10 and 12.

However, less attention has been paid to the future of community and town councils – the most local form of democracy in the Welsh political system. There are more than 730 such councils throughout Wales, on which sit a total of around 8,000 councillors. While the merger of principal authorities has grabbed the headlines, it seems that the community and town council sector might also need to brace itself for change.

Welsh community and town councils vary substantially in size, with the amount of citizens they represent ranging from around 200 to 45,000 people. They are funded in the main through a ‘precept’ from the area’s principal authority, and this also varies. The mean precept is around £40,000 and the median precept approximately £10,500. However, a quarter of all councils set a precept of less than £5,000.

The Welsh Government has introduced a number of policy developments over recent years intended to address perceived weaknesses in the sector. They have included provisions in the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011 to increase the powers and strengthen the capacity of community and town councils; a national training strategy; and new guidance on the relationship between town and community councils and the principal authorities. More recent developments through the Local Government (Democracy) (Wales) Act 2013 will oblige all community and town councils to have an online presence from April 2015.

Meanwhile, on the same day as the Williams Commission reported, the Welsh Government published an Evidence Review of community and town councils in order to ‘inform future policy development’ in this area.

This Evidence Review recognises that the developments listed above have ‘considerably strengthened the institutional framework for community and town councils’. The report also highlights the sector’s value and says that its benefits include local responsiveness; the ability to represent local interests; the ability to mobilise community activity; and the ‘additionality’ town and community councils provide to services delivered by principal authorities. In contrast to non-statutory community groups, the Evidence Review pointed out that community and town councils are notable for their accountability, stability and continuity.

However, the Evidence Review also highlights numerous areas where concerns about the sector remain. For instance:

  • From one council to the next, there is a great deal of inconsistency in size, setting, budgets and activities. This is an obstacle to introduce new powers and provisions that can apply across the whole sector;
  • Decision making is constrained by statutory and self-imposed restrictions on revenue and expenditure;
  • Some councils are not always complying with guidance or legal obligations;
  • The profile of councillors is not representative of the communities they serve (with an over-representation of those aged over 60);
  • There is a resistance by a small minority of councils towards modernisation and professionalization;
  • There can be shortcomings in the knowledge and understanding of local government by some councillors and clerks, which can limit the effectiveness of the councils themselves.

The Williams Commission report identified some of these problems and drew particular attention to the fact that, following the 2012 elections, only one in five community and town council seats in Wales were filled by councillors who were elected in a public poll. The remaining councillors were all returned unopposed or co-opted after no candidates stood for particular seats.

Combined with the problems associated with small scale, the Williams Commission concluded that the ‘town and community council sector is in clear need of reform’. As such, it recommended that town and community councils should be merged or enlarged to ‘create fewer, larger councils capable of expressing local interests clearly and effectively’.

In its recent Devolution, Democracy and Delivery White Paper on reforming local government, the Welsh Government says that it agrees with the Williams Commission that community and town councils are ‘too small, and lack capacity and capability’. As such, it will consider whether any principal authority areas in Wales would benefit from a review of their communities and their boundaries.

However, the Welsh Government also stresses that it does not wish to recreate the two-tier system of local government that existed prior to 1996. It stresses instead that the role of community and town councils must be considered ‘in the context of larger Principal Authorities and the role of ward Councillors within those Authorities’. The White Paper goes on to promise ‘a further paper this Autumn’ that will look at options for strengthening community governance to make it ‘effective and fit for purpose for the 21st Century’.

Merger of the 22 principal authorities will no doubt continue to focus attention and draw debate. But community and town councils might well be next in line.