The Talking Point #26: Radical options for council reform shouldn’t be dismissed

(Title Image: Wales Online)

Last week, the CBI’s Chair in Wales, Mike Plaut, weighed into the local government reform debate by suggesting Wales needed no more than four councils – North Wales, Mid Wales and two “city regions” based around Swansea and Cardiff.

His argument goes that having just four local authorities would tie in with emerging growth deals and city deals – both of which are driven in the main by the UK Government, with some feed in from the Welsh Government and councils themselves. We also have experience of large regional authorities in the form of the police forces (four) and fire services (three). He suggested the number of councillors could also be halved to around 600 too.

Now, that’s a bold vision, to say the least.

Many of these “super councils” may be geographically small in area, but his proposed Mid Wales, in particular, would probably take you two hours or more to get from one end to the other and it would also have an incredibly low population density (perhaps the lowest outside the Scottish Highlands).

That doesn’t mean the idea should be dismissed, nor that it couldn’t be tweaked.

The Williams Commission‘s main failure was that it didn’t have the remit to do a full and proper review of how local government works, including giving due consideration to what local government should be responsible for, at what level (local, regional, national) should power lie and a long-term replacement for council tax, business rates and the council funding formula.

Maybe four regional authorities could work if beneath it there were a large number of (maybe 50+) beefed-up community and district councils which could retain some functions that can be delivered locally with minimal regional or national strategic oversight (i.e. leisure, planning control, licensing, highways, rubbish collections).

The key question that hasn’t been adequately answered in this debate, for years now, is “Will this actually improve services?”

Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) is keen to point out – as he, and others, did again last week – bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Small and medium-sized councils have their advantages and often out-perform the likes of Cardiff (which has a terrible record on recycling, for instance).

The simplest solution would be to merge the smallest local authorities with their largest neighbours to try to bring the average population-per-authority up whilst making sure they remain recognisable, so: Anglesey-Gwynedd (+Ceredigion?), Torfaen-Monmouthshire, Blaenau Gwent-Caerphilly, Merthyr-RCT and possibly Conwy-Denbighshire (who were on the way to a voluntary merger anyway).

That would reduce the number of councils to 17; 16 if Ceredigion merged to create the mooted “Arfor” region/county (or even merged with Pembrokeshire as the Williams Commission proposed).

If it’s an accountability and efficiency issue, then surely it’s the time to consider directly-elected mayors (and significantly smaller councils) in the existing 22 local authorities, each of whom could take over the council’s executive functions.

There are plenty of options beyond simply changing the map. Increasingly though, as this debate gets more tiresome with each passing year with nobody willing to bite the bullet, the most attractive and most radical option of all is to do nothing.

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