The present is a very uncertain time for local government in Wales. Councils face continuing cuts to funding, while the Draft Local Government (Wales) Bill outlines how reorganisation of local authorities will take place. It has taken the Williams Commission and more than 1,000 pages of White Papers to get to this position. And we won’t know until after the assembly elections what the configuration of local government will be.
However, there are important lessons for the future in introducing significant change in the public sector. Governments can follow a ‘bottom-up’ reorganisation strategy where reforms are generated at the local level and councils have the freedom to decide whether - and with whom - to merge.
Countries such as Finland, France and Italy have followed this strategy. There are no threats of intervention or enforcement, and incentives are used to encourage the cooperation of local government.
This is in contrast to the Welsh government’s strategy, which has largely followed a ‘top-down’ approach, exerting its power to introduce change and often making decisions against the will of local councils (and citizens). This has been done in a confused and inconsistent way, with the production of a number of different maps and collaboration groupings. Furthermore, when councils were given the chance to propose mergers, Welsh Government rejected these plans.
There have been a number of media headlines about local government reorganisation saving money by reducing the number of ‘highly paid’ senior officers and cutting the number of councillors. But these costs are minor in relation to the cuts that councils have implemented over the last few years. More importantly, academic research does not provide a clear answer to the question as to what size and structure of local government is more efficient. Bigger is not always better.
Those reorganising local government around the world offer all sorts of projected savings, but it is unclear whether these savings are ever delivered. Given the lack of hard evidence on size and costs, it leaves considerable room for political judgement. For example, in England, reorganisation is not on the cards, and has been described as a ‘fundamental waste of taxpayers' money’.
Finally, where is the public (and other interested stakeholders) in this ‘debate’? Why aren’t they involved in the design of the map rather than it being delivered from above? Where is the discussion on what these new councils will look like, whether they will get any additional powers devolved to them, what structures need to sit underneath them, and whether levels of council tax will go up as a result? Welsh Government has allowed discussions on structure to lead without considering the function of local government in any depth.
Other parts of the Draft Bill outline some fundamental changes for local government. In reading this, I was drawn to a quote from the 2014 ‘Reforming Local Government White Paper’ where Welsh Government recognised that they: ‘do not need to manage the detail of Local Authority business. We can, and should, leave more autonomy and decision-making with those who manage the delivery of services’ (2014:12).
The idea of less micro-managing and allowing freedom for local councils to develop their own solutions to problems is one to be welcomed. However, Welsh Government has outlined a number of overly prescriptive actions such as dictating that a councillor should at least hold four surgeries a year (whilst many are increasingly trying innovative ways of engaging the electorate), and expanding the role of standards committees to assess the performance of councillors.
This raises two questions. To what extent is legislation needed in these areas (should councils not have discretion)? And, why aren’t the same rules applied across all levels of government in Wales to improve consistency? It seems to be a case of one rule for local government and another rule for Welsh Government.
Moving on to the future of Welsh local government, it will be important to learn the lessons from how councils have collaborated to date.
Our research on regional collaborative working concluded that there are a number of factors which help to facilitate effective collaboration including:
• Having a clear vision;
• Leadership (by both senior managers and politicians);
• Setting up clear governance arrangements;
• Having robust accountability and performance management;
• Involving staff at all levels;
• Engaging service users through co-production and feedback; and
• Setting ambitious, realistic and measurable outcomes.
In addition, there are a number of different ways in which services can be delivered in the future to cope with cuts in public spending and increases in demand. Popular examples include putting an increased emphasis on prevention, ‘nudging’ changes in behaviour, widening the type of organisation who deliver services, charging for some services, and co-producing services with the public.
Now is the time to assess the evidence, from within the UK and beyond, on whether, and if so how, these different approaches to service delivery have had an impact, so that Welsh local government can deliver effective and efficient services in the future.
Dr James Downe is reader in public management, director of the Centre for Local & Regional Government Research, Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University. He was speaking at a fringe event organised by Cardiff University in partnership with the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA).