Saturday, 20 June 2015

The evidence is against the Andrews Plan

You would expect Peter Black and the Welsh Liberal Democrats to be against the forced merger of unitary authorities in Wales proposed by Leighton Andrews. One might suspect Labour councillors in their opposition of having a vested interest in maintaining a large number of wards.  But the Labour Welsh Government should surely take note of the consistent criticism of the plan by Jeff Jones, who is now, as an ex-councillor, above the fray.

Most telling of all is the view of an expert with no axe to grind. Colin Copus is professor of local politics at de Monfort University in Leicester. He told "Good Evening, Wales" last Wednesday:

"It's strange that we seem to be pursuing something that the rest of Europe simply doesn't pursue at all and that is increasing the size of local government to almost meaningless entities. I think one of your speakers referred to huge councils. Most of the rest of Europe seems to be able to make small local government work and work very effectively, and reorganising simply on a hope that there will be tremendous benefits is something that should be avoided.

"A lot of the savings that are estimated for reorganisations of course are just that: estimates. It's very rare that after local government reorganisation does anybody go back and check these and if they found that if those savings hadn't been made they certainly don't then suggest returning to the original system.

"But I think what has to be made clear in any of these debates about increasing the size of local government is one thing, and that's for fifty years or so research from across Europe has shown that there is no consistent improvement in cost-effectiveness or efficiency in increasing the size of local government. There can be, but it's not a consistent outcome of mergers of local authorities. What is more consistent however is that democratic criteria of local government are damaged.

"So turnout in local elections, trust in local councillors, communication between councils and citizens and communities, trust in local government officers, engagement in local government: all of these very vital valuable democratic criteria are damaged the bigger local government gets. So you have to ask yourself a very very important question: what is the purpose of local government? Is the purpose of local government in Wales simply to do what it is told by the Assembly and deliver services or is it to be a democratically-elected alternative set of political loyalties to the central government in Cardiff that local people can have some connection to. It's those questions that will drive size. and not any estimates of how much it may or may not save. [...]

"Rather than go through what would be a protracted and very expensive process of reorganising local government - because it doesn't come for free, it is an expensive process and it is distracting from the work that local government has to do - what alternative exists is that government, central government in Cardiff, simply gets out of the way and allows councils to work together in the ways that they see best for their local communities. And, as an alternative to mergers, that voluntary cooperation, that voluntary joint working, does work and it's shown to work again across Europe."

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