Tuesday 21 January 2014

Williams Commission : Council shake-up revealed

Arrivederci, Anglesey! Bon voyage, Bridgend!
Local government in Wales is due to undergo reforms following the
publication of the findings of the Williams Commission.
(Pic : Bevan Foundation)
It was the worst-kept secret in Welsh politics, but....

Yesterday, the first of the "big commission reports" of 2014 was released. Chaired by former NHS Wales Chief Executive, Paul Williams, the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery has proposed a near-halving of Welsh local authorities, an overhaul of management training in the Welsh public sector, and changes to some aspects of funding and scrutiny.

Local government reorganisation is something many have anticipated for a long time in their own nocturnal commissions; waking up at the very thought of it feeling all sticky and warm.

As regular readers will know, last year – about a month before the Williams Commission was established – I outlined my own thoughts on local government reform, coming up with :
  • Scrapping community councils , replacing them with ~300 "cantrefi" run via a form of direct democracy.
  • Bringing back up to 30 of the pre-1996 districts, granting them powers over "small ticket" local matters (development control, licensing, leisure etc.) and headed up by directly-elected mayors, in turn scrutinised by significantly smaller councils.
  • The creation of at least 4 provincial/regional assemblies, with many public bodies - like local health boards - folded into them and made democratically accountable. They would take responsibility for running "big ticket" items like health services, policing (if devolved), strategic planning, fire services, social services, education, National Parks etc.

As the great and the good are now questioning the impact of the Commission's proposals -  whether it will disengage people from local democracy, and whether the proposed local authorities will be too large for local issues, but too small to cover health and education - it was a wasted effort, I suppose.
I'm only a blogger, after all.
The full report is available here (pdf), but it's a whopper, coming in at over 350 pages. I'm basing most of this post off the summary report, which is "only" 105 pages long (pdf).

To the lay person, the report itself - even its summary - will be impenetrable, full of public sector buzzwords (step-change, sustainability, delivery, resilience, partnership, collaboration, tackle etc). I realise it was always going to be, though as a result this is a long post.

Before you complain or leave, summarising the review's details in 3,000-odd words this soon was hard work and nothing short of miraculous. Don't thank me all at once.

The Challenges

The review didn't stop and start at local councils, but
included other public bodies like local health boards and fire authorities.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
The Commission highlighted three key long-term challenges facing public services in Wales : austerity, demographic change (resulting in more people reliant on public services) and higher expectations from the public in terms of performance. They outline that there's an increasing "funding gap" that could last until the mid-2020s.

The Commission believe that to meet these challenges, and more, "some structural changes are....necessary and urgent. But they will achieve nothing without changes to governance, scrutiny, accountability" etc.

The first issue was complexity. If you want an idea of how complicated current governance arrangements are in Wales, take a look at the "accountability map" provided (pdf). They say this isn't "unique to Wales", and that new bodies have simply been created as new policies have developed. The Commission even suggest that some complexity is desirable in the public sector because some issues can't be contained within single organisations. I'd say it's because of managers and third sector empire building in an attempt to make themselves "indispensable", so I'm not convinced of that argument at all.

Next, there's the issues of scale. The Commission say there are 935 public sector organisations in Wales - listed here (pdf) - one for every 3,200 people. Smaller organisations are said to face greater risks and costs, though that has no bearing on performance. However, smaller local authorities have problems in capacity (lack of resources), are unable to attract higher-calibre managers, spend up to £50 per person more in some areas compared to a larger authority and are disproportionately affected by demographic changes (Anglesey and Monmouthshire picked out specifically).

On the issues of governance, scrutiny and service delivery, the Commission believe current systems neither provide enough internal challenge, or respond to citizen's voices. Citizens aren't strongly engaged in scrutiny (I wonder why), and there's a culture of defensiveness in the public sector.

Next, the Commission turns to issues of leadership and culture in public services. They say there's an urgent need for an overhaul of leadership in the public sector; both in producing managers who can deal with uncertainties and in terms of greater collective responsibility. They go as far as to suggest a "new type of leader is necessary", as current quality of leadership is inconsistent. There are also long standing problems with "silo working", parochialism, short-termism and lack of innovation (explored more in Wales : State of innovation?).

Finally there's perhaps the biggest issue of all - public service performance. The Commission believe performance is directly-related to all the other issues above, which creates a "public sector that's....not performing as well as it needs to." Performance is patchy and poor compared to countries of a similar size, with few improvements over time across education, health and social services. The Commission believe lessons should be learnt from services that have performed well – for example,  fire services and recycling, where Wales excels compared to the rest of the UK.

Their overall conclusions were summed up as :
  • The Welsh public sector is too complex and crowded to cope with the pressures placed on it.
  • Many public organisations in Wales are too small, placing them at severe risk of governance failure.
  • Organisations are slow to respond to pressure for change, and internal governance arrangements are inadequate.
  • The culture in the Welsh public sector isn't well-suited to face challenges.
  • Public sector performance is "poor and patchy", and inadequate in the face of the big challenges ahead of it.

The Recommendations

"Scrutiny should be valued" was a key recommendation - a message
that falls on deaf ears in Welsh local government at present.
(Pic : Broken Barnet)

There were a total of 62 recommendations, which I'll summarise by theme.

Reducing Complexity
  • Simplified funding arrangements - focusing on achieving outcomes, with funding based on whether policies actually deliver or not.
  • Review legislation to ensure it streamlines public sector decision-making.
  • Community Health Councils should ensure the concerns of patients are at the heart of governance, and should scrutinise objectively, with the Welsh Government expanding their remit to include advice and advocacy roles, reinforcing their independence from Local Health Boards.
  • National Park Authorities should collaborate with each other, with the Welsh Government co-ordinating and providing national-level leadership. Local authority members to National Park Boards must represent wards within the National Parks.
  • Fire Authorities should be reconstituted to scrutinise Chief Fire Officers, and the Chief Fire Officer should be legally responsibly for planning, managing and delivering fire services. Fire Authorities should also scrutinise joint-working between fire and ambulance services, raising the possibility of new bodies to scrutinise all emergency services – subject to devolution of the relevant powers.
  • Local authorities and local health boards should prepare plans to integrate their services. Specifically, Powys Council and Powys Local Health Board should fully merge, with the Welsh Government legislating to bring that forward.
  • The Welsh Government should legislate to merge Cadw and the Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments (recently rejected by the Culture Minister).

Increasing Scale and Capability
  • Current local authorities should merge into larger units of either 10, 11 or 12 local authorities (I return to this later).
  • Arrangements for mergers must be agreed by Easter 2014, with the process completed by 2017-18.
  • Some community and town councils should be merged, while local authorities should adopt a neighbourhood management approach to identify and help deal with community issues.
  • The Welsh Government and local authorities should review regional delivery of public services, and figure out which changes are no longer needed as a result of the recommendations above.
  • The four education consortia should be aligned with the proposed local authorities.

Improving Governance, Scrutiny and Delivery
  • Scrutiny should be valued by all people involved in public services – including officers and elected members. Decisions should be publicised clearly and invite scrutiny.
  • Local government scrutiny committees should engage more with the public, including the co-option of people from advocacy groups.
  • Auditors, inspectors, regulators etc. must report directly to the relevant scrutiny committee.
  • Council Leaders, especially where it's unclear what they stand for (i.e. Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire style "Independents"), should produce a written manifesto and present it to the full council, with an annual statement of progress towards achieving its aims.
  • The Welsh Government should review independent appointments to Local Health Boards by December 2014, while LHBs themselves should review their own scrutiny and governance arrangements.

Improving Leadership and Changing the Culture
  • The Commission propose the Welsh Government establishment a public service leadership and development centre, owned by, and accountable too, the Welsh public sector as a whole, funded by contributions and charges.
  • It should replace Academi Wales, be outside of the Welsh Government, would "bring together the best leadership programmes" and provide training. It should be established by the end of 2014-15.
  • The Welsh Government should consider the creation of an Appointments Commission to fill senior public sector leadership positions.

Improving Performance
  • Performance measures should be based on effectiveness of policies/outcomes, not on efficiency of services. Performance criteria should be clearer and more distinct.
  • Performance should be driven forward – based on the success of recycling – by changing delivery practices and through public awareness campaigns.
  • All public bodies should engage with staff to aim for continuous improvement and the intelligent use of information.
The Commission recommend the Welsh Government start work on addressing these issues "immediately", lasting 3-5 years, and in collaboration with public bodies. They also recommend the Welsh Government maintains a register of all public bodies in Wales.

The Main Event : Local Authority Reorganisation

Many people might question the need to reform local authorities, especially as other countries have smaller local authorities which produce better outcomes. The Commission justified their proposed changes to local authorities, in response to that, because "policies differ from one country to the next".

If I'm honest, that was a little non-sensical and the Commission didn't properly explore the reasons why different local government arrangements work. I bet they didn't because if they did, two-tier authorities would come out on top. That would be a little "too radical".

As for the proposed changes themselves, the new local authorities should be co-terminus with (can't cross) :
  • the European Union NUTS2 regions (East Wales & West Wales and Valleys) due to how EU funds are distributed – the gerrymandered and artificial "Rich Wales" and "Poor Wales".
  • local health board areas
  • police force areas
  • the four education consortia areas
Here's a map of the proposed 12 local authorities, with their populations as listed in the full report :

The headline recommendation for local authority reorganisation
- to be in palce by 2018
(Click to enlarge)
Apart from a merged Gwynedd & Anglesey and a stand-alone Carmarthenshire they would be identical to the EU's NUTS3 areas.

The Commission included a scenario of 11 local authorities – where either Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire merge; or Bridgend, Swansea and NPT. A scenario of 10 local authorities includes both those mergers.

If the headline option of 12 local authorities is implemented, and based on a presumption that a cap of 75 councillors would be in place, the total number of councillors in Wales would fall by 370 to 894 (p320 of the full report).

A few of these proposed local authorities cross fire authority boundaries, especially in the Swansea area (NPT is Mid & West Wales, Bridgend is South Wales). So fire authorities, regional transport consortia and police forces would probably need  moderate reorganisations too.

The inclusion of Carmarthenshire as a stand alone authority seems odd (more from Y Cneifiwr). Pembrokeshire-Carmarthenshire would be a more natural merger - if unpleasant for anyone living in either
Democratic People's Republic - or even the proposed reincarnation of Dyfed.

We can now look forward to the bun fights over where they should be based and what they should be called. That's unless they're going to do something monumentally stupid, like moving council meetings between two or three grand, fully-maintained civic centres in a manner as wasteful as the European Parliament.

Then there's all the other "little problems" to iron out :
  • Council tax and business rate arrangements, plus the formula used to determine the annual settlement. An equalised NPT-Bridgend council tax bill could mean a tax rise for Bridgend residents and a tax cut for NPT residents (p320 of the full report).
  • How much will it cost? The WLGA say £200million, with a potential 15,000 redundancies. The Williams Commission say £100million, with savings of between £60-80million per year afterwards. That's before you add issues relating to pensions and job evaluation.
  • The status of local development plans and housing projections. There's good cause to rip both up as the dynamic would change dramatically.
  • The status of existing joint arrangements and collaboration, like between Bridgend and Vale of Glamorgan for civil parking enforcement, and possibly other things in future.
  • The certain need for another local authority ward boundary review and significant reduction in the number of councillors, plus dealing with the opposition - from within Labour in particular - this will create.
  • Will it actually improve services? We don't have a clue, and won't know until afterwards.

There's no problem with 12 unitary authorities, as I see it, providing there was; a proportional voting system for local elections; a review of council procedures and practices to ensure service delivery is scrutinised properly; and the option of directly-elected mayors to provide more accountable leadership and replace chief executives. We didn't get any of that, so there are issues with these proposals - speaking personally - but they'll have to do.

Also, it'll be politically difficult to get this process completed by 2018.

I doubt every AM will agree on this for a start. It looks like the Welsh Conservatives are leaning towards opposing this if it costs a significant sum of money (notwithstanding the fact they'd never run a Welsh local authority alone again under these boundaries). Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems are both cautious and lukewarm, while former Swansea Council leader, Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East), has often spoken against reorganisation. That's before you factor in councillors too. Angry letters from Blaenau Gwent inbound.

The familiar droning chorus of the good ol' Welsh moan at any change to the status quo has already begun, while this will inevitably cause a period of uncertainty for local government employees - precisely what they don't need right now.Meanwhile, getting local authorities to agree on mergers by this Easter seems optimistic, bordering on an attempt to rush things - which would be dangerous. That's unless some of this was agreed informally beforehand and the whole process was used to support a pre-determined conclusion. Nah, that wouldn't happen in Wales, would it?

Wales being Wales, this could get very nasty, very quickly and requires a strong arms at the top. The Local Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), better start pumping iron.

Conclusion : Halfway there?

 Should it have gone further? Will it be watered down?
Let the games begin.
(Pic : Wales Online)
I'll admit it. After the initial coverage, I was expecting to go into this finding nothing but a fudge. I'm pleased to say that's not the case.

There are a lot of good proposals in relation to measuring progress, scrutiny and leadership. There's also a comprehensive analysis of the current issues and problems facing Welsh public services. However, it only went halfway to where it should've been.

That's not the Commission's fault. On the contrary, whenever this happens – like Silk I, Holtham and Richards before it, presumably Silk II too - I'm more annoyed that we waste the time and talents of those involved.

The Commission were given a remit that sounded broader than actually it was, and too little time to do a "deep review". This process should've lasted 2-3 years and been Welsh local government's equivalent of the Richard and Holtham Commissions combined.

Subsequently, this barely scratched the surface. Merging local authorities is a slightly lazy conclusion. However, it was the absolute maximum the Commission could realistically propose - minus a wider mandate.

The best single idea to come out of this is the creation of a public sector leadership centre. Possible collaboration between fire and ambulance services, as well as intergration between social services and health, also sound interesting and could have a big impact on service delivery.

However, for all the focus on delivery and management, there's very little in the way of absolute changes. It's more a shopping list of, "It would be really nice if local councils did X,Y,Z" - basically telling councillors, managers, board members, officers etc. to do things they should've been doing in the first place.

In the long-term, these proposals will lead to fewer managers, fewer councillors, fewer chief executives and generate migraines for local government administrators.

All current problems regarding delivery will persist, just in new branding.
We'll settle back into "old ways" as soon as the dust settles, because this review didn't look at what local authorities should do, or what level is appropriate for service delivery, just some aspects of the how.

I'll stick my neck out and predict, firstly, that there'll be a struggle to hit the 2018 "deadline". This Welsh Government are small-c conservatives who don't have the cojones to do anything this drastic (by their standards), and despite the language of determination coming from Cathays Park, might find opposition from within local government too much to handle. We'll need a new generation of ministers and AMs with few ties to local government to push it through.

Next, I predict we'll get a watered-down version – a compromise of 16-18 local authorities - where only the smallest local authorities, or those persistently in special measures, will merge with larger neighbours (Merthyr, Anglesey, Blaenau Gwent etc). We'll still get the inevitable harumphing from councillors and officers in the Welsh press, but it'll keep costs and redundancies to a minimum. We'll lose under 100 councillors, which won't spook the parties too much.

Any compromise will be justified on cost grounds, following successful lobbying from various public bodies, WLGA and the bigger local authorities in the south and west.
We'll still have 900+ public bodies, and we'll return to this again in 15-20 years time, because simple mergers won't solve the complexity problem and won't improve scrutiny.

They correctly saw what the problem was, they formed a committee, they chickened out of making the big calls.

"How Wales works" in a nutshell.


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