Now that the re-organisation of local authorities has been put on hold with the election of the new government in Wales, where next for local government?
In the previous Welsh government, it was felt that structural reform was necessary to drive forward on efficiency and cost savings. This view was set within the background of the Williams review of public services in Wales where it was highlighted voluntary collaborations and partnerships did not go far enough. The Local Government Bill suggested reforming the existing 22 authorities to 8 or 9 new ones to ensure that services were not duplicated, to reduce staff costs particularly at the highest levels and most senior posts and to deliver better collaboration. Ultimately, the purpose of re-organisation was to deliver more effective services with the best outcomes.
With the new government in May of this year, priorities may have changed a little. There are new Assembly Members who are probably unwilling to tell their electorates that their local authority is to be re-organised. There is also the maths to think about – the minority Labour government has 29 members and with the ‘appointment’ of Kirsty Williams from the Liberal Democrats to join them to make 30, this number does not allow ‘unpopular’ legislation to be approved. Plaid Cymru or UKIP do not have local government re-organisation as a top priority.
So, where next?
The new Minister would be well advised to identify the effectiveness of the existing collaborative arrangements across local government. Where they are seen to be working and delivering services effectively, good practice should be encouraged to be taken on in other areas. This will mean that authorities will all be responsible for the same services legally but delivering different ones in practice. One authority may take on the delivery of social services for another area or the library function for a range of authorities. These collaborations may also be with third sector voluntary bodies where the function or service is delivered by outside bodies (maybe even private sector ones).
If Welsh government moves in this direction, the key framework which has to be got right is governance. Good governance will involve ensuring responsibility, the agreement of key performance measures and what effective service delivery will look like. Delivery can be undertaken by the best service providers from across the sectors.
Effective services must come first and structural reforms if they are needed, second.