Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Rationalisation and centralisation

The collapse of plans for a number of local councils to pool certain functions has inevitably led for calls from some to force local councils into co-operating. The Western Mail editorial leads the way with a suggestion that if councils won't share functions voluntarily, then the number of councils should be reduced.

There is a question here about whether the proposed rationalisation should ever have been restricted to local government anyway. If we want a single centralised payroll system for ten councils, why not for 22? And why not include the NHS? Why not, indeed, a single payroll system for the whole of the public sector in Wales? What makes one particular combination 'right' and others 'wrong'?

As I blogged recently, I don't necessarily disagree with the notion that Wales has too many councils, and should re-organise them, but I think we need to start by asking what they are for. The problem with most of the calls for a reduction in the number of councils is that they seem to start from a pretty subjective statement such as "Wales doesn't need 22 Directors of Education", rather than from the question "What's the best way of delivering education services in Wales?".

And it isn't just about education, of course. Local government provides a whole range of services - on what basis do we start with the assumption (which is where most seem to start) that the best way of delivering one service is the best way of delivering all services? Does the structure for delivering education need to be the same as that for delivering leisure services, for instance?

We have an Assembly government with highly centralising tendencies, which is regularly reducing or constraining the scope for local government to add value and make a difference. It sometimes seems to me that differences between Wales and England are considered by some to be perfectly acceptable, but differences between Cardiff and Newport are not.

I find it fascinating to see some arguing for allowing the Assembly Government to do things differently, and then arguing that that same government should enforce a standard approach across Wales' local authorities. This is a particular challenge for those like myself in parties which have traditionally called for more decentralisation. Real decentralisation has to be about more than passing money from the centre to the local authorities and then telling them exactly how to spend it.

I'm not against a reconsideration of local government structures - far from it, I think it's overdue. But we need a proper review, not a knee-jerk reaction. And I think that, as Plaid said in our 2007 manifesto, we really need to look at the governance of Wales as a whole.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

It is sad allowing the banking industry and the financial sector to run riot has turned this country into a first aid case.

people at the bottom will suffer the most, the people at the top will hardly notice, sadly new labour only purpose in life now is to be re-elected.

I hear they are thinking of having bin collections once a fortnight allowing the council to share this by putting the contracts out to tender.

I'm not sure i care enough anymore to vote for one party of the other, what a bloody mess we are in.

Rebekah said...

A thoughtful post and a refreshing change from the two-legs, four-legs mantra that emerges whenever local government reorganisation is discussed. We should remember that, notwithstanding the odd boundaries commission tinkering, the local authority map of Wales pre-dates the Assembly. It is the creation of former Secretary of State David Hunt who in 1995 combined 37 districts and 8 counties into 22 unitary bodies which somehow magically managed to coincide with parliamentary boundaries as they then existed.
Sadly, the concept that councils are third and fourth tiers of government is still a widely held one at key decision making levels in Wales.

Successive reforms may have made local councils more accountable in terms of political management and thereby notionally more efficient but they have also made the same bodies less meaningful within their communities and far less able to exercise discretion when prioritising services to match local needs.

As much as I agree with your views on criteria - and the imbalance between Merthyr and RCT is clearly a case in point – I am afraid that the WAG agenda will focus on changing the electoral system rather than an attempt at an intelligent debate on how to redefine the role of local government and restore powers lost to quangos and through privatisation.

John Dixon said...

Rebekah,

I share your concern about the likely outcome of the WAG agenda. I also understand the point about 'third or fourth tier'.

Local Government in the UK (a bit like the Assembly in a way) is hamstrung by the fact that councils can only do what they are specifically allowed to do (the ultra vires rule); in many other countries, they can do whatever they are not specifically forbidden from doing by law (infra vires). Plaid's traditional position has been for the abolition of the ultra vires rule, giving local government more scope to do what it thinks is right.

I still think that's the right way to go, but with two important caveats. The first is a funding system for local government which is not dependent on central government grants - and that means a switch in taxation from the national to the local. That's not a bad thing in itself, but without it, any 'freedom' which local government has is going to be illusory.

The second is that we need to decide which services, and to what extent, need to be standard and uniform, and which can be provided differently across Wales. Claiming to be in favour of decentralisation whilst demanding ever tighter national standards is not, in my view, an honest position to take.

Calls for there to be fewer, 'more strategic' authorities amount to calls for more centralisation. That may, or may not, be the right way to go, but we need to discuss it openly and honestly, not keep pretending that some decisions are being made by local authorities when they clearly are not.

The time for deciding how many authorities there should be and what their areas are is after deciding what they're actually for. I suspect though that it will come first - and that government won't give proper consideration to the real question at all.

Plaid Panteg said...

Interesting stuff, I linked your post to mine.

Essentially I think that Councils are being given an opportunity to make changes, or changes are going to be made for them.

however, I baulk at the idea that local government is a case unto itself. It has to form part of a massive democratic upheaval in Wales, looking at every sphere of politics.

Many of the people I speak to had no idea that Council tax only makes up for 11% of Council's revenue.

I like your idea about Councils providing non statutory services, rather than statutory.

Penddu said...

John - I agree with you completely. We need a fundamental review of what government at all levels does including community, county, regional (eg South-East Wales), national (Wales), UK and EU; and then to ensure transparancy and linkage between service delivery, funding and democratic accountability.

The current system is just a mess.

DC said...

I am not convinced that the real issue of greater democracy for the individual is being addressed by any party.

The word “Choice” is bandied about to imply that we have freedoms, where in fact we are more restricted in our daily lives than ever to the extent that we are already in an Orwellian World where our personal details are accessible by virtually anyone.

We are constantly under surveillance, many “rights” that were won by the Unions have been lost and we live in society where safeguards have gone completely out of control due to the actions of a small minority who have caused “knee jerk” legislation.

Yet somehow, even with a huge Social Service, we allow persecution of the Vulnerable to go unreported and unpunished until we all throw up our hands in horror when some new atrocity is unveiled.

On top of this our democratic rights are gradually being usurped and our personal impact to have the ability to change incorrect decisions had become a pathetic shadow of real choice.

The underlying problem is fundamental where the machinations of democracy are seen to be ineffective by a far more aware electorate who now use technology to keep abreast of affairs whether they are in Cardiff or Arthog but this information is now controlled by SKY, CCN, ITN, BBC, ALJAZEERA or other Broadcasters.

An example of what I call dislocation of the governmental administration from the real word (which should be being passed to them by the politicians) is when the people who make up the social administration refer to people dying from “Transfer Trauma” as “Natural Wastage” – I must admit I hadn’t looked on my family and friends quite in that way before.

In fact it seems that we have lost our way with the Council Administrators making the policy and the Councillors merely becoming "window dressing" for a democratic show.

Surely it is the Councillors who should be demanding the Officers to do what the Public wants not the other way around.

There are however many politicians (and Plaid can be proud of theirs) who are fighting for their constituents but due to the System can actually be prevented from protecting these constituents from poor decision making by other bodies.

Consultation appears to be a farce and Public Enquiries have become just an expensive waste of both money and time.

Have you noticed that the people who have to make “painful decisions” never seem to be the ones that are affected by those decisions?

There must be a way and I for one think there is....for a political party to reflect the changing needs of the people who vote for it on a regular basis so that it can gauge where it has been, is going and indeed how to get there given a changing landscape.

Using Direct Democracy is possibly the only way that politics will have relevancy to future generations certainly at a Local and possibly at a National Level.

People are already “hooked up” through technology, even political parties encourage people to use email, facebook, twitter and the internet but for what?

The current involvement is used for discussion, informing people and for bringing people together.

Take it a few stages further where you can watch a debate from your own home and vote on it immediately or perhaps you could see the effect of a policy before it is rolled out using computer and media technology, bring people in on a discussion using video conferencing from all over the country etc.

Let people have more control over their own affairs not by creating more ruling bodies but by using technology.

Although the idea of saving possibly £15,000,000 each year by getting rid of the 22 Council Directors is appealing, I expect that the County and Borough Councils are necessary to implement policy but this does need to reflect the needs of the electorate.

If society is not represented fully, government eventually becomes almost irrelevant until what happens is a complete dislocation from the people and the political parties, which will lead to ….well frankly who knows?