The structure of local government in Wales is once again on the agenda and there is talk about the existing 22 councils and whether they need to be re-organised. This topic goes back a long way, possibly starting shortly after the 22 were put in place in 1996. Questions about whether local authorities were too small to deliver services including education, whether there should be 22 heads of service across Wales and whether the best leaders were in place were all being asked about local authorities in Wales.
The size of public organisations including local authorities is an important issue. However, in relation to size of public organisations and their effectiveness, the jury is still out. Bigger organisations do not necessarily deliver better services no more than smaller ones. No one size fits all. There may be a range of factors supporting and promoting effective services and these will also include leadership, expertise and the demand for the service, for example. Sometimes, government looks more favourably on ‘big is better’ and sometimes ‘small is closer to people and better for democracy’.
At this point in 2016, with all the demands on public organisations including local authorities and finances are really stretched, Ministers will look back and wonder why reorganisation hasn’t happened. For now, a full scale re-organisation is off the agenda. It’s too expensive, too much of a distraction and public want the focus to be on services and not structures.
Instead and building on existing good practice, local authorities will do what they have been doing for some time – building up effective joint working around service delivery. It is reduced budgets, cuts in funding and a desire on behalf of local politicians and officers to keep up services have both been a big driver of this change rather than politicians in Welsh Government.
Welsh government is now keen for this joint working to go much further.
The local government cabinet secretary Mark Drakeford laid out his vision for the future of local government in Wales on Tuesday last and said the current 22 councils would remain in place unless there were cases where authorities wanted to merge voluntarily. In relation to the delivery of services, the Minister is keen on an approach were cities and regions are responsible for services including strategic transport, and economic development, with organisations similar to health boards in Wales delivering other services including education and social services. Local authorities will be strongly encouraged to deliver services jointly and work even more closely with other bodies including health, police and the ambulance service.
Clearly, then the agenda is much more regional for the delivery of key services. Over the next five years, I think that a new pattern of local government will emerge and there will be joint heads of service across two or three councils in some areas of delivery and maybe even a shared Chief Executive or two. A few councils are likely to merge voluntarily.
A big issue for the future is integration with other services and not just local government – police, fire and rescue, ambulance, housing, health and so on. Joint working arrangements to deliver services will become the norm and these will be different across Wales. It is services which interest citizens more than structures.