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Drakeford sets out timetable for Welsh council reform

Welsh councils have been told to use the next eighteen months to prepare for the “harder choices that lie ahead” as part of local government reform.

In a speech at the Welsh LGA’s conference yesterday, Mark Drakeford, the Welsh local government secretary, called on local authorities to keep working with the Welsh Assembly to push for a new Local Government Bill.

He advised local authorities to consider future financial pressures, outlining the government’s new set of reform proposals based on ‘systematic and mandatory’ collaboration between neighbouring councils in a bid to address the ‘significant challenges’ of budget cuts and Brexit.

Drakeford noted the ‘corrosive impact’ that uncertainty has had on councils in Wales, but informed the conference that he intends to meet with local councils with the hope of reaching a consensus before the end of 2016, prior to a formal consultation in the New Year.

“Looking at the bigger picture, we need to remember why reform is so important and the reason is this: local government makes a real difference,” he told the conference.

“Councils provide the services which touch everybody’s lives, every day; whether it’s educating our children, looking after our elderly, disposing of our waste or lighting our streets. That is why we need to create a new relationship between the public and their local councils.”

Reform has been on the Welsh government agenda since a draft Local Government Bill was published last November, with the Assembly looking to find £650m in savings by reducing Wales’ 22 councils into a larger set of eight or nine. The idea was scrapped earlier this year but negotiations have been continuing to encourage voluntary co-operation or mergers between regional authorities.

These proposed co-operations include city-regions working together over strategic transport, land-use planning and economic development; and health boards for services such as education improvement, public protection and social services.

Drakeford acknowledged that the proposed reforms are challenging, but sought to reassure the conference that cultural shifts are possible, highlighting Wales’ vast improvement at recycling over the past thirty years.

“If we succeed in making these regional arrangements work then that not only makes services more sustainable but sets a future precedent for doing things differently and in a much better way,” he said.

The Welsh local government settlement made last month saw added stability for local councils, such as the first cash increase in the settlement since 2013-14 and the introduction of a funding floor, meaning that councils will receive at least 99.5% of the funding provided to them in 2015-16.

Drakeford thanked local authority leaders for their co-operation over recent months and looked forward to ‘a new beginning’ in the relationship between the Assembly and local government.

“In order to do this we must develop trust, a willingness to work together and to compromise, as well as a mutual appreciation of our respective but distinctive roles in improving outcomes for people in Wales,” he said.

Consultations on the new arrangements are expected to conclude prior to next May’s local government elections. The new Local Government Bill will be developed and presented to the Senedd later in the year.

(Image: c. National Assembly for Wales)

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