Against a backdrop of growing austerity, rising demand for services and widespread speculation on local government reorganisation, public sector leaders will meet today to discuss the future role, structure and sustainability of Wales’ 22 local councils.
Expected to raise a call for increased localism and the decentralisation of public service delivery in Wales, the WLGA’s annual conference will aim to challenge the growing misperception that local government reorganisation offers a ‘silver bullet’ for solving the complex array of issues, and the £2.6billion budget shortfall facing Wales’ public services as a whole.
With five months having already passed since the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery presented its recommendations for the reform of public services in Wales, councils are yet to receive a response from Welsh Government.
While the Commission’s report outlines how local government reorganisation could, at best, save the public purse £80million per annum by 2020, local councils in Wales have been left managing a far more urgent funding crisis in the shape of a potential £860million budget shortfall by 2018.
As core public services are also becoming increasingly centralised and protected, the ‘slice’ of funding available to local councils to deliver frontline services is also expected to shrink significantly. While communities throughout Wales may actively prioritise local library, leisure, transport, waste and community provision, the scale of the cuts being made to the local government budget have called the sustainability of these vital and popular public services into question.
Aptly entitled 'Council 2025: a vision for local government', the WLGA's annual conference will bring together politicians from all tiers of government, as well as representatives from across the public, private and voluntary sectors in Wales.
Cllr Bob Wellington (Torfaen), Leader of the WLGA said:
“Local government in Wales faces the most challenging set of circumstances in its history, and since the findings of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery were published earlier this year, speculation on reorganisation and what the ‘map’ of local government should look like has dominated what should be a much wider debate on public service reform in Wales.
“The pressures being placed on Wales’ public services are significant and complex, and any future reform of how these services are delivered must be based on a consideration of the public sector as a whole rather than a ‘paint it by numbers’ approach to council boundaries. We acknowledge that local government itself must change, but the reform process should be based on a true consideration of the functions and role that local councils should fulfil rather than the structures that are required to support this.
“Local democracy in Wales is not an abstract political concept. The public want local government and local decision-making when it comes to the issues and services that they care most strongly about, and public services will always be delivered more effectively when they are shaped and informed through an open dialogue with the people who use them.
“In stark contrast to the current response in Wales of increased centralisation and ultimately less accountable forms of government, today’s event will hopefully start the process of remodelling the delivery of local public services on a principle of localism and decentralisation that is far more sensitive to community interaction, more publicly engaged and ultimately more empowering of its citizens.”
Councillor Dyfed Edwards (Gwynedd), Leader of the WLGA Plaid Cymru group said:
“The financial and organisational sustainability of all public services in Wales will come into question over the next ten years, as cuts in public expenditure combined with increased service pressures mean they could face a potential budget shortfall of £2.6billion by the end of 2025.
“Reform is both crucial and unavoidable, and the Welsh public sector must embrace this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to shape services directly around the needs and views of our local communities, and to ensure that our vital public services are shaped in a way that allows them to meet the significant demands that will be placed on them in the future.
“Local services are important to the people of Wales and today’s event offers an important opportunity for Welsh Government, and all of Wales’ major political parties, to share their vision for how Wales’ local public services should be delivered and run in advance of both General and National Assembly for Wales elections over the next few years.”
Councillor Hugh Evans (Denbighshire), Leader of the WLGA Independent group said:
“The last financial settlement for local government in Wales was by far the worst since devolution, and effectively removed over £250million from local council budgets. To successfully manage such drastic cuts, local councils must be empowered to be innovative in their responses. This will only be made possible when they receive clarity from Welsh Government on their vision for how local government might be structured and funded in the future.
“The recent Commission on public services raises a number of key points on reducing complexity, de-cluttering funding arrangements and downsizing the bureaucracy built up by Welsh Government in support of its various policy initiatives. Individual grant schemes have risen significantly in recent years, from £402m in 2004 to £859m by 2013, and such over complication within the funding mechanisms used to support Wales’ public services does little to help local councils navigate such a challenging economic environment.”
Councillor Peter Fox (Monmouthshire), Leader of the WLGA Conservative group said:
"Local government has already had to manage significant real terms cuts to its budget and the growing shortfall in local government finances could potentially extend to as much as £860million by 2018. There is little doubt that the current economic climate will demand radical approaches, not just by local councils but by all of Wales’ public sector bodies over the next few years.
“What we require now is a clear response from Welsh Government on the wide ranging recommendations that were made over five months ago by the Commission for Public Service Governance and Delivery. The longer it takes to table this response, and to initiate these discussions and the process of public sector reform, the greater the challenges will become.”
"I personally believe that the whole local government reorganisation debate is a massive distraction from the real problem that local government is facing right now, which is the question of how to maintain vital public services with an ever decreasing pot of money."