This article was first published by the Western Mail.
Whatever the outcome of the General Election on June 8th it is clear that national and local governments will continue to face ongoing challenges in meeting growing demands on public services and providing value for money.
For campaigning politicians a recurrent message on the doorstep is that citizens do not get government. They do not know or care who delivers what, they simply want to know that what they need is available when and how they need it with minimal fuss and manageable cost.
For example, waste services have for decades been a battle ground between national policy and local delivery but residents just want their bins emptied. Instead they have to deal with a complex, confusing and costly system of different coloured bins and different rules on what can be recycled when and how, depending where they live.
While Welsh local authorities are ahead of the rest of the UK in levels of waste sent to landfill (17% compared with 22% in the UK), a regionalised or even national approach could drive up performance further and reduce costs at the same time. Bulk buying bins and streamlining collection processes would lower costs and a standard approach to colour coding recycling may incentivise those who find it too difficult at present.
This all sounds like common sense but the experience in Northern Ireland, Scotland and here in Wales consistently demonstrates that structural reform of local government is an arduous and often self-defeating process.
If the suggestion comes from central government it is interference in local democracy; if local collaborations advance the idea, it runs into trouble when decisions have to be made on contracts, supply agreements and local governance.
One option is for councils to use their existing powers and freedoms to enable cooperation. For example, the freedom to trade enables councils to act commercially and form their own companies (aggregating supply, reducing cost and generating revenue). The benefits can be seen in Norfolk County Council’s Norse Group which provides services ranging from property advice to running care homes. It also sells its services to other councils and has a turnover of more than £250m a year.
Using a similar model, Wales could develop its own self-managing company that manages waste for the whole country and empowers employees and customers to decide what is delivered when and how.
This, however, is currently a pipe dream. After decades of having these powers the benefits of collaboration at local level or devolving national services rarely stand the test of scrutiny and local interest. Yet there are examples outside the UK of how things can be done differently.
In Norway, welfare provision was decentralised in the 1980s and has produced a thriving system of local government whilst supporting rural communities. Now a new approach to local government reform is planned to create larger and more resilient authorities. In addition to cost savings, the objective of this reform is “securing gold welfare services for us all”.
Structural mergers have also been incentivised through amalgamation grants. These allow merged municipalities to retain central government grants on the same basis as if they were still two (or more) entities. With the current reduction in local authority budgets, offering a similar scheme in Wales could be a strong driver in encouraging local authorities to share or merge administrative boundaries. Even advocates of local government admit that the average scale of a Welsh authority is small in comparison with the rest of the UK and Europe. Equally, in increasingly digital times many transactions and enquiries about services do not need to happen in a particular locality.
It is, however, important to assess which services will benefit from regionalisation and to make a realistic assessment of the costs and the benefits involved. So while the potential cost savings in delivering shared back-office services (a range of 11%-24% ) are significant, the pain and distraction of achieving them should not be underestimated and there may be better options.
What is needed is a careful examination of how to achieve the best outcomes for local people irrespective of whether services are provided locally, nationally or regionally.
There is a real opportunity to galvanise the will to regionalise, share and join up services but the Welsh Government must set out the clear rationale for change and approach it openly and in a spirit of partnership. If reform is to happen and be sustainable it has to be done with a clear focus on the long term and on meeting the changing needs of local people.
Karen Cherrett is a local public services expert at PA Consulting Group.