Local Government Reorganisation in Wales
Unlike the other pieces on this section, this one is perfectly 'straight'. I'll leave the jokes to the politicians.
Local government reorganisation is in the news once again. There was a report that my local council, Bridgend, and the Vale of Glamorgan, put forward a joint proposal to amalgamate. The politicians in the Welsh Assembly have rejected it. Apparently they are going to come up with a master plan of their own.
How tiresome politicians of both the main parties are. I worked in local government through the two previous reorganisations so had the misfortune to see things in close-up.
In 1974, the Tories scrapped a perfectly valid and historic Glamorgan County Council and the series of 'second tier' small local councils (like Bridgend Urban District Council and Penybont Rural District Council in the local case). They professed to prefer a three-way split at County level by creating the artificial Mid, West and South Glamorgan Councils.
Under their scheme, the 'second tier' would comprise a number of District Councils, formed by bringing together groups of the former urban and rural districts. Our local district council was Ogwr. With a population in excess of 100,000, this was too big to be local and too small to be efficient.
In 1974, I was not senior enough to be heavily involved but couldn't help but be aware of the frenzies that went on around me prior to 1st April. The struggles of a 'new' County Council were plain to me in the mid-seventies. Later, I heard some hair-raising stories from people in the new District Councils, who had the tougher job of bringing together a number of smaller, disparate organisations.
I can tell you that this reorganisation occurred not for any sound reason. It was brought about purely because Geoffrey Howe, a county councillor at the time, couldn't get his silly voice heard at Glamorgan County Council meetings.
In 1996, the Tories in their wisdom decided to have 'unitary' councils, which would carry out the functions of both the 12 Counties and the 37 Districts. To have any chance of being local, these couldn't be too large, so the magic number was set at 22. There was much political debate as to where the boundaries should fall. At one stage, there was a proposal that one of the new Councils should be called 'Heads of the Valleys'. Fancy having your local council named after a road.
Locally, Mid Glamorgan was split four ways and the District Councils were amalgamated in various ways to make county borough councils. Bridgend was comparatively straightforward, in that a quarter of Mid Glamorgan was amalgamated with Ogwr.
There were much more complex configurations elsewhere. 'RCT', for example, was made up from about two-fifths of Mid Glamorgan County and three District Councils. The three had natural boundaries and the welding together didn't come easily, especially since accommodation was inevitably a mish-mash. Caerphilly County Borough mas made up from bits of two County Councils and a District Council from each.
From personal experience, I can tell you that, even in a 'straightforward' case there was an extraordinary amount of work involved. Very little of this effort was aimed at improving public services. These were badly disrupted for a few years before and a few years after. So much effort had to be put into making things work at the most basic level over the period of change.
My local council, Bridgend is hardly big enough to be viable. At the same time the council serves far too wide an area to be local. Many council areas are smaller. Merthyr, for example, has only half the population.
So, what is the answer? We wait with baited breath for the Welsh Assembly to tell us. They will no doubt come up with numerous points to justify whatever proposals they dream up. These probably already exist on the back of an envelope. Some of the matters raised will be valid, like the existence of the Assembly itself, and the financial difficulties facing all public bodies.
Nevertheless, they will try to shoehorn all of our local government into their 'one-size-fits-all' scheme. There will follow another few years of disruption while things settle down and then in fifteen or twenty years someone will come up with another master plan and the whole thing will start again.
What we need is pragmatism and common sense. Still, they are only politicians. We shouldn't expect too much.