This is an article for the Electoral Reform Society
A dictionary definition of 'collaboration' tells us that it is a situation in which 'two or more people work together to create or achieve the same thing'. For many in Wales over the last few years, it has been a form of displacement activity to avoid facing up to and doing something about the mess created by the 1995 reorganisation of local government.
There is no doubt that collaboration is on-going across Wales both between local councils and between councils and other public sector bodies. Much of that collaboration is beneficial and results in better public services, some of it even saves money, but by its nature this form of joint working is a moveable feast as priorities change and budgets come under pressure. It is certainly not the permanent solution to poor performance and diseconomies of scale that Welsh Government Ministers and their officials envisage.
What is more this collaboration often distorts the local democratic mandate. Joint arrangements are frequently opaque and are delivered outside of the public's gaze. Councillors anxious to discover the efficacy of such compacts often cannot get partner organisations to give evidence to scrutiny committees and are stymied in their investigations by confidential partnership documents and complex legal arrangements. As a result they cannot use the scrutiny process to improve service delivery.
As a liberal, I am inherently opposed to large structures. I do though sign up to a process known as subsidiarity, which is the principle of devolving decisions to the lowest practical level. It is my view that in many instances big services such as Education and Social Services are being entrusted to bodies whose capacity to effectively deliver them falls below the lowest practical level.
That has a cost in itself, both in terms of poor services as evidenced by many Estyn and CSSIW reports as well as Government interventions but also in terms of the retention of and the ability to attract high quality staff, and tying up of money in disproportionate bureaucracies that would be better spent on the front line.
In recent times Ministers have sought to counter this problem through regional working, though their failure to promote consistent regional boundaries has just added to the confusion. For example the Welsh Government are promoting the transfer of powers to four regional consortia to deliver education in Wales. They have now reached an agreement with the WLGA to top-slice money so that these consortiums can actually deliver services. Policies are now being made at a regional level with little or reference to Councillors and with no opportunity to effectively scrutinise them
At the same time the Local Government Minister has set down a framework under the title Collaborative Footprint for Public Services which attempts to standardise future collaboration based on six specific regions. These though are different to the regions specified for educational delivery.
All of this is going to come to a head early next year when the report of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery is made public. All the signs are that they are going to finally grasp the nettle and propose a drastic reorganisation. My view is that if they confine this solely to local councils and fail to further devolve powers within Wales then they will have missed a substantial opportunity to widen the democratic basis of our public service delivery.
We need to take the opportunity in any reorganisation to reconsider who delivers key services at a local level and that should include the devolution of powers from the Welsh Assembly to the new councils. In addition any reorganisation needs to improve transparency and accountability in the delivery of services as well as to better empower local people.
I think it was a mistake to exclude the local health boards from the ambit of this commission. As was made clear by the outgoing Public Services Ombudsman, these bodies are largely unaccountable to the population they serve, operate in an opaque manner, are not scrutinised or challenged in any detailed or meaningful way and deliver services that often overlap with those of other public sector providers such as local councils.
We also need to consider the role of Town and Community Councils and the National Park Authorities. Although there are good examples of effective and efficient community councils delivering good services at a local level, many are too small to replicate that provision. A sensible re-ordering of community councils could enable them to fill the gap in ultra-local service provision created by the reorganisation of unitary authorities.
The three National Park Authorities remain largely unaccountable to the population they serve. Democratising them would set two mandated authorities up against each other within the same geographical area and it would be best if instead their planning powers and their countryside and conservation functions were instead transferred to the new Councils.
Newly reformed local authorities should be more accountable, constituted on a scale that can deliver services efficiently and encompass a broader range of responsibilities so as to produce a more strategic and joined up approach to governance. We should also take the opportunity to ensure that the governance of these councils is fit for purpose and that they better reflect the views of the local population.
I believe that we can best achieve this by reducing the number of Councillors, ensuring that the number of executive Councillors are properly utilised in a strategic role and having Councils elected by the single transferable vote system so they are properly representative of the way people voted.
In addition to this we need to examine the case to pass over responsibility for public health and community health care to these locally elected councils so as to create a single health and social care function that will eliminate duplication and waste and be accountable to local electors.
We should also look at passing other strategic responsibilities to Councils such as those for post-16 education so that they can deliver the 14 to 19 agenda as a seamless whole. We could give them greater strategic control of transport within their area including the power to deliver cross-modal transport solutions and a wider economic development remit. We might wish to, pass on to them responsibility for community regeneration including the future delivery of communities first, and enable them to develop local economies by empowering them to regenerate town centres, stimulate local job creation, including allowing them to retain some of the proceeds of business rates in order to incentivise economic growth.