The roundabout of local government reform
Tyfu Tai Cymru project manager Catherine May looks at what might be next for local government reform in Wales following the decision to scrap the proposed map of local authorities.
There was a cheer in the room at the Welsh Local Government Association's conference when the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services announced he would scrap the proposed map for local government reform which would have created 10 supra-authorities across Wales. However the thorny issue of reform is not yet behind us. Alun Davies AM then challenged the leaders of the 22 authorities to form a map in partnership with him which would mean reduced bureaucracy and cost while continuing to deliver the essential services so many people rely on. The debate about how to transform the current set-up of local authorities has rumbled on for decades, with mergers often described as a crucial step to streamline services, reduce resources and improve efficiency.
One of the aims of the Tyfu Tai Cymru project is to raise the profile of housing in local government, to make sure planning and managing homes are always seen as a priority for authorities across Wales. We want to support staff from housing departments to feel they can have a voice in the decisions about their services and communities.
Our report Weighing the options followed a survey which had responses from more than 30 staff members from 16 different authorities, including tenant liaison officers, housing stock managers and heads of services.
Respondents told us there is a need for preparatory work to be done before major changes including the merging of authorities to prepare staff and councillors. In particular we need to avoid the negative impact of in-fighting amongst councillors and senior staff which then leads to staff in local authorities feeling stressed and uncertain about the changes.
Staff could see the benefits of merging financial and staff resources, recognising the savings that would be made through procurement and economies of scale. This included where there were mergers between authorities who had transferred stock and those who had retained stock. Respondents identified that fewer, bigger authorities would result in a wider pool of available homes, including bringing empty homes back into use.
People also told us about their concerns, including the merging of services. Fifty percent of people highlighted a fear of losing touch with local needs and accountability. People also told us that they worried about job losses, policy drift, and the redrafting of policies and strategies delaying delivery
We asked respondents which option they would chose: 26 per cent chose voluntary merger as they felt a forced merger would make working relationships very difficult; 19 per cent favoured a phased approach believing this would allow better planning and consultation; 23 per cent preferred the single comprehensive transfer programme voicing fears that voluntary routes would lead to senior staff dragging their feet. And 32 per cent chose the option of no merger, saying that a merger offered nothing but loss.
We shared our recommendations with the Minister for Housing and Regeneration, Rebecca Evans AM, who replied to our report that she considers the recommendation regarding a joint meeting between the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services, representatives from local authority housing departments and herself as a good idea. However, following the Cabinet Secretary’s announcement regarding local government reform, it would make sense for any meeting to happen once the position on potential mergers is known. She also supported our suggestion that Assembly Members should engage with local authority councillors and housing departments regarding the impact of any mergers.
We will continue to promote the voices of those who responded to our survey and urge those making decisions about the next version of the local government map to ensure meaningful engagement with staff. The ongoing indecision about what the reforms will look like and the hostility between people at the most senior level is affecting the confidence of staff and tenants in the delivery of services.