Mon. Aug 19th, 2019

Local Government Reform – Part 2

From 1535 to 1974, Wales was divided into 13 ‘historic’ counties, which over the years had become increasingly unbalanced as population clustered into the south east and northeast. And so in 1974 the UK government abolisheed the ‘historic’ counties and reorganised Wales into a two tier system of 8 counties divided into 36 districts. This worked reasonably well until 1996 when the UK Government decided that the Counties and Districts should be merged into 22 unitary authorities. These were not so effective with critics saying that the new authorities were too small to be efficient, and so in 2016 the Welsh Government (who had now taken over this area from UK Government) decided that it was time that we had another reorganisation. However nobody could agree on the structure and various proposals ranged from 16 counties to 4 regions, with 7 or 8 primary councils seeming to be the final decision.

How large should our primary authorities be?

While one group (typically led by management consultants) advocates larger council groupings in the interests of efficiency; others (typically local councillors and political activists) advocate smaller units so as to retain local links and improve accountability. It is clear that for delivery of certain services, such as policing and social services, then bigger is better, and a regional approach may be the best solution. However this does not work well for all local government services – and a unitary ‘one-size-fits-all’ may not be such a good idea. Maybe the 1974 model was not so bad after all?

A Community based approach

In reality a new two-tier model appears to be what we are getting. As mentioned in this earlier article, the Welsh Government have issued a report which reccomends a transfer of powers from Local Councils to Community Councils. Enhanced Community Councils will take over control of a number of ‘place-based’ services including road maintenance, street cleaning, parks and recreation etc – leaving the primary councils responsible for ‘people-based’ services – ie the high budget staff-intensive services such as Education, Social Services etc. By strengthening the role of Community Councils, which Ein Gwlad sees as a postive step towards re-empowering our communities, the Welsh Government is also clearing the path for creating larger ‘regional’ style primary councils.

How many Regional Councils do we need?

Assuming that we now have a lower tier of around 100-150 Community Councils providing localised services, then we could consider maybe 7 regions:
– Gwent : Newport & Gwent (pop 588k)
– Caerdydd : Cardiff (inc Penarth & Dinas Powys) (pop 393k)
– Morgannwg: Bridgend, RCT, Merthyr & Barry (pop 543k)
– Bae Abertawe: Swansea & West Glamorgan & Llanelli (pop 447k)
– Dyfed Powys: Dyfed (exc SE Carms) & Powys (pop 385k)
– Gwynedd : Gwynedd, Mon & Conwy (pop 310k)
– Clwyd: Wrexham, Flintshire Denbighshire (pop 386k)

Other combinations are clearly possible – but lets just consider the structure for now.  Each of these regions should be large enough to provide major services, while being underpinned by around 20 communities in each. The Regions should provide support services to the Communities, but the Communities should maintain their political and financial independence.

Council tax for both the regions and communities should be collected by the regions, but with the tax bill separately indentifying the Community Council element and the Regional element.

What happens to existing Regional Bodies

We already have a mixture of public bodies, such as Police, Fire and Rescue, Health Boards, which operate regionally but each with different regions, and differing relationships with the counties.  All such bodies should be aligned with the new regions.

The Police could be restructured into a National Police Service – Heddlu Cymru – accountable to a Minister in the Welsh Government, but with delivery by a regional division –  accountable to a Policing Committe of the Regional Council.

Similarly for Fire & Rescue – but with suitable provision made to ensure that emergency priorities take precedence over artificial boundaries.

The Health Boards are already too large and a move to a regional approach should encourage more local provision of services – and an end to the incessant centralising beloved of the NHS.

More Political Accountability

Every Community would be represented by a local council of 6-12 Community Councillors, and also by 2-3 regional Councillors (elected by STV), our local politicians should become more visible and identifiable and hence more accountable for their actions  – or inactions as is often the case today.

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