Cabinet Secretary softly rebuked for latest local government reform plans



(Title Image: Electoral Reform Society)

The Issue

Public Services Secretary, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) recently launched the third major attempt at local government reform in the last 3/4 years. It follows the untimely demise of the original Williams Commission proposals and (the former Minister responsible) Mark Drakeford AM’s (Lab, Cardiff West) move towards regional collaboration.

Local authority mergers appear to be back on the table, but the reaction from local government has been strong and the announcement is said to have caused yet more uncertainty.

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Notes that the Welsh Government Green Paper – Strengthening Local Government: Delivering for People – is the third proposal in three years put forward by the Welsh Government on local government reform.
  • Notes that local authorities were working towards regional arrangements put forward under the Public Service Secretary’s predecessor.
  • Regrets that the latest proposal has caused sustained periods of uncertainty for councils and their frontline staff.
  • Is concerned by the continual top-down nature of Welsh local government reform, as well as the absence of cost and benefit analysis taken on all previous local government reform proposals.

Key Points

Shadow Local Government Secretary, Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy)
For (the motion): Here we go again!

  • The latest proposals fail to acknowledge the impact “top-down diktat” has on local authorities.
  • The WLGA has accused the Welsh Government of recycling failed plans and the more “dictatorial” approach is a contrast to the engagement pursued under Mark Drakeford.
  • Such reforms rarely deliver the savings or performance changes that were hoped for.
  • The ongoing debate has been described as, “a cross between Fawlty Towers, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and Yes Minister“.
  • Why isn’t there a more radical plan for public service reform?

Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon)
For: Work with councils, not against them.

  • Not convinced an expensive reorganisation during a period of austerity is the best use of resources; council budgets have already “been trimmed to the bone”.
  • Councils have already established regional working (as proposed previously) and this is running smoothly.
  • Constructive relationships between local government and the Welsh Government is key to improving services.

Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli. Pembs.)
For: A paean to Pembrokeshire.

  • Not convinced a return of Dyfed, as an example, would provide better services; Dyfed County Council was seen as remote and unpopular.
  • Pembrokeshire residents have already seen what impact centralising services has on their communities with the downgrading of services at Withybush Hospital.

Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen)
For: Not convinced of the need for reorganisation.

  • The debate hasn’t moved on beyond the “22 councils are too many” argument and the burden of proof in support of change should be on the Welsh Government; the financial benefits are at risk of being overstated.
  • Councils have already made big strides in administrative savings to protect front-line services.
  • Some of the smaller local authorities actually perform relatively better than bigger ones.
  • Reorganising during a period of austerity “would be a disaster”.

Gareth Bennett AM (UKIP, South Wales Central)
For: We’ll be back here again in 20 years time.

  • Whatever happens here is bound to be controversial, but the plans have been made a meal of.
  • The latest plan has caused a lot of uncertainty among staff and interferes with plans for regional working.
  • We end up with a reorganisation roughly every 20 years with each one said to be “the last”.
  • Shared working will be preferable to wholescale reorganisation or council mergers.

Mohammad Asghar AM (Con, South Wales East)
For: What about council tax?

  • Genuine concerns have been raised over council tax harmonisation if there were mergers; some taxpayers in Monmouthshire and Torfaen could pay £300 a year more under the proposals.

Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East)
For: Bigger doesn’t mean better.

  • There’s no evidence that larger councils perform better than smaller ones, based on the Welsh Government’s own local government performance statistics.
  • Why is Powys always treated differently to the rest of Wales?
  • In 1996, the reorganisation cost the equivalent of 5% of annual expenditure.

Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West)
For: The Welsh Government shouldn’t assume it’ll get its way.

  • It was wrong to appear to force this on councils; engagement would be better.
  • Proposals to move Bridgend into the Cwm Taf health board caused mere anxiety at the beginning but is now causing anger as it looks like an assumption that the Welsh Government’s proposed merger of Bridgend and RCT is simply going to happen.
  • How will this affect previous Local Government laws? What will have to be amended?
  • Terms of any mergers should be agreed before the mergers take place, particularly in relation to council tax and debt.

Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth)
For: Dry debate follows dry proposals.

  • We’re all fed up with dry debates on reform, but the reason they keep happening is proposals like this keep coming forward.
  • Let’s discuss reform to public services first, then think of the structure that’s needed.

Welsh Government Response

Public Services Secretary, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent)

  • There’s broad agreement that the current structure can’t continue, even amongst the WLGA.
  • He has had “challenging and robust” conversations with councillors across Wales, but none of them wants Conservative policies to be followed as in England which has seen council budgets cut by up to 49%.
  • He doesn’t “dream” of the local government map, but the thought of redundancies which have already been made keep him up at night.
  • AMs aren’t paid to tell people what they don’t like or discuss problems the public already know about, but to find solutions.
  • We need “devolution within Wales” and there’s a commitment to enshrine the EU Charter on Local Government in Welsh law.

Vote

Despite speaking out against the proposals, both Mike Hedges and Lynne Neagle voted with the government.


A softer-worded amended version of the motion – which noted the paper, that 22 local authorities are “unsustainable” and that local government should be empowered in various ways – was approved by 34 votes to 13 with 8 abstentions.

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