Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Williams Commission : The Fallout

What's long been seen as a no-brainer reorganisation increasingly
looks like it's going to cause the Welsh Government headaches.
(Pic : Wales Online)

Yesterday, the National Assembly held the first of what's likely to be many debates on the Williams Commission report – which I covered last week - into the future of public service delivery, and possible reorganisation of Welsh local authorities.

It's only part of the public discussion that's continuing into the report's recommendations, and it's certainly generated several talking points.

The Assembly
Although most AMs who spoke did so in favour of change, it looks like the Welsh
Government will have trouble convincing their own AMs, let alone the opposition.
(Pic : National Assembly)

The debate started with the First Minister, who said some of the Commission's findings will make "uncomfortable reading for local government, for us (AMs) and for other public services in Wales." He emphasised that the report underlined that delivery was patchy in addition specific problems with long-term finance *insert obligatory Westminster cuts reference here* .

He said the report was "never just about mergers in local government" but believes this reorganisation "will be different" (compared to 1996). As Welsh Labour leader he says his party will be consulted on the proposals and a Welsh Government stance will be reached by the end of March. Though he later said "the time frame for....potential legislation" needs to be in place by April.

Shadow Local Government Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders (Con, Aberconwy), criticised the timetable, and although she welcomed the Commission itself, called for strong leadership from the First Minister to see it though. She raised concerns about uncertainty facing local government workers.

Plaid Cymru Leader, Leanne Wood (Plaid, South Wales Central), welcomed the wider work into public service delivery, even though the debate had focused on "lines on maps". She wondered why the debate was held "now" instead of on a cross-party motion that would have the backing of Welsh Government and Assembly. She said reforms "must....aim to improve public services" and that the last reorganisation was "built on whole scale horse-trading" that mustn't be repeated.

The Lib Dems Local Government spokesperson, Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West), dismissed the idea that the report's recommendations "should be accepted wholesale", and criticised the fact there was no (political) representation of opposition parties on the Commission (there were, however, members closely associated with parties, like Nerys Evans and Nick Bourne).

He believed the terms of reference were flawed, highlighting that it didn't look at health or the local government voting system. He also criticised the language of the report – "a bureaucratic nightmare written in consultant speak".

Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen) rejected the idea of "tinkering with the electoral system". Although she accepted change, she believed concerns about the cost of reorganisation should be listened to, and the Assembly was "rushing headlong into (reorganisation)....in order to meet an arbitrary Easter deadline for which there appears no rational explanation ".

Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery) raised concerns about the specific proposal to merge Powys Council with Powys Health Board due to some services being commissioned from neighbouring health boards.

Leighton Andrews AM (Lab, Rhondda) said he was sympathetic to the Commission's recommendations, unsurprisingly making the link between scale and education failures. Although he agrees with the need for "smaller, stronger councils", he believes the role of local government wasn't explored in enough detail, neither were alternative forms of service delivery.

His comments were partly echoed by Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd), who also questioned the wisdom of merging two poor local authorities (RCT + Merthyr) and said the role of community councils needed to be discussed.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carms E & Dinefwr), said the First Minister's statement was "contradictory" because he expects the opposition to respond to the report without himself offering a response on behalf of the Welsh Government.

In his closing remarks, the First Minister rejected Peter Black's assertion that opposition parties were being "forced to back" the Commission's report, and instead believed AMs would've wanted to debate the issue early. He said it was "preposterous" there were 22 planning authorities, local education authorities etc. wondering if one or two of the LEAs "would ever come out of special measures".

He agreed with Leanne Wood that there shouldn't be any "horse-trading" on wards, boundaries etc. saying it might cause the process to unravel.

The First Minister finished by warning AMs that the longer the process continued the more uncertainty it could cause local authorities, especially in recruiting senior officers.

When it came to a vote on the motion and amendments, AMs - except those from Plaid and the Lib Dems - rejected the idea of changing the local election voting system. However, they supported an amendment calling for a reduction in the number of local councillors.

Too Soon?

Although there were Q&As in previous sessions, the fact they held the debate just over a week after the report's publication is unusual. Plenary debates on committee reports, for example, are usually up to a month after publication. This was significantly more complicated than anything that's come out of an Assembly committee.

Maybe Carwyn Jones though he was doing AMs a favour by offering an early debate, and he hints at that. However, I would be surprised if AMs and their support staff made it through the full report and fully-digested it to the levels expected of a professional legislator this soon.

Before I'm accused of hypocrisy, I can base blog posts off the summary because I'm not paid large sums of money to go through it line by line. I'm "allowed" to miss bits and pieces here and there because I don't have any credentials or responsibilities. AMs can't.

As a result, it'll take some convincing for me to believe this was a fully-informed debate, and it looks like an attempt to rush things.

Local Government & Public Bodies
It appears local authorities are waiting for the Welsh Government
to make the first move, though support for reform appears lukewarm.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

Many of the current 22 local authorities are – as far as I can tell – still "digesting the full report" (or using it for post-digestion purposes) which makes the Assembly debate timing even odder.

The broad vibe I'm getting is that they "cautiously welcome" some but not all headline recommendations, and are waiting for the Welsh Government to make a formal response.

I know Bridgend Council circulated statements to reassure staff that the reorganisation process is at an early stage (English : No jobs are currently under threat). I'm sure other local authorities have done the same.

Some immediate concerns have been flagged up. Vale of Glamorgan Council Leader, Neil Moore (Labour), pleaded to the Welsh Government not to merge his authority with Cardiff. Ceredigion Council's Leader, Ellen ap Gwynn (Plaid), questioned the Easter deadline, while her Chief Executive expressed concerns about insecurity amongst workers.

On Monday, the Daily Post reported a campaign's been started for Anglesey (I don't know if its by Paul "The Druid" Williams) to remain apart from Gwynedd due to concerns about a possible Bangor-centric local authority, with Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Mรดn) calling for "local voices to be heard".

The WLGA are also "digesting the report", but judging by their evidence to the Commission, there are strong signs the WLGA might oppose full-blown mergers on cost grounds, instead seeking more formal collaboration between the current authorities.

As far as I can tell there hasn't yet been any formal response from fire authorities, national parks, police forces or local health boards – all of which could be affected by the Commission's proposals too.

The Bay Bubble

Most of the civil society responses have come via Click on Wales.

First off, there's an article from former Cardiff Council Conservative leader, John Winterson Richards, which called for better leadership not better structures. He believes the Welsh Government and Assembly haven't applied enough pressure on councils, leading to entrenched poor leadership, which he partly blames on Labour's hegemony. He's not the first to question the reported financial savings from reorganisation either.

The Electoral Reform Society's Stephen Brooks summarises a series of articles from AMs, local government and academics – Catch 22 (pdf). He wonders if proposed reorganisations might reduce local democracy, as larger authorities might be too distant from their communities. He effectively questions if local government is 100% trusted to deliver certain services, and that a centralising technocracy has developed in Cathays Park since devolution.

John Osmond offered a comprehensive summary of the Commission report itself. This was followed by a Gareth Hughes article, which questioned whether the process will be completed before 2018, due to big political differences in the Assembly about the way forward.

Next, there was an article from director of Co-production Wales, Ruth Dineen. I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person, and I'm more than used to jargon in the sciences. I've often believed it's harder to describe complicated issues in layman's terms than through public sector management-speak. Though if I'm completely honest I barely understood a word of it and wonder if it (and a few of the responses) was a subtle satire of the Commission report itself.

I think what Ruth was trying to say was that there's an opportunity to rethink how local services are provided. Users and other members of the community could volunteer to run and design local government services alongside professionals. That's "radically different" to what we're used to, and a model used in places like The Netherlands and closer to home via things like timebanks.

Elsewhere, there's an article from Phil Parry's ITK (to use footballing terms), Daran Hill, on Wales Eye which further explores some of the political machinations. We all realise Labour are probably in for a tough time from their local government ranks, and that the Conservatives are almost certainly going to oppose reorganisation if it's not proven to save money in the long run. Daran believes that Labour could reach an accommodation with Plaid (or the Lib Dems), but it's likely to come down to the issue of the voting system.

ITV Wales' Adrian Masters says there are tentative steps towards some sort of deal, with talk of meetings between the First Minister and the opposition party leaders being arranged for next week - again Adrian says a deal might hang on proportional representation.

On the subject of voting systems, over on the Elections in Wales blog, Prof. Roger Scully described the current method of electing local councillors as a candidate for "The Worst Electoral System in the World". He says the chance to change the electoral system at local government level would be a "valuable reform", giving a nudge and a wink towards Single Transferable Vote (STV) - as used in Scotland.

Last but not least, former Bridgend Council leader, Jeff Jones, launched a broadside at the Commission and its proposals in The Western Mail. He described the recommendations as a "quick fix solution" that would create local authorities with entrenched economic under-performance (like the proposal for the Gwent Valleys) and lead to big redundancy pay outs for senior officers.

It's 11 weeks or so until Easter, the deadline suddenly looming an awful lot closer.

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