When we collide, we come together

It has been a week where Welsh Labour has been under some uneasy scrutiny inside and outside the Senedd, not least when the Minister for Local Government and Communities confirmed the Welsh Government’s final settlement for local authorities in Wales on Tuesday to some noticeable rumblings from the opposition.

Since the 2012 election, one would expect the relationship with local government to be rather more cosy since Labour has regained control over the WLGA and given their overall control in 10 councils and a stake in another 6 Cabinets. The expectation was that it would be easier than usual to ‘sell’ this settlement, particularly in an era of austerity.  However, Carl Sergeant has not stinted in his less than cosy crusade to achieve greater collaboration and a greater degree of “national” and “standardised” approach across local authorities in face of some local and national resistance.  Despite accepting that the approach has changed (out of democratic necessity) from a “forced” to a “voluntary collaboration”, it is clear that his determination to achieve this outcome has not wavered nor his expectation of councils performing better in the way they deliver services.  

When introducing the final settlement to the chamber on Tuesday, there were a number of areas where tensions between the national and local was manifest and likely to become acute in coming years.

Firstly, was the distribution of funds. There was a general acceptance that this was a fair settlement in relative terms and the protection to core services, especially education and social services has been welcomed, not least by the WLGA. However, there was more disquiet about the way money was redistributed, not least those representing the Powys County Council, seething at a “disastrous” settlement for that county with a rise of 0.3% (not accounting business rates redistribution), compared with a Wales average of 1.5%.  This led to questioning the whole redistribution formula, particularly when it came to rural proofing for services and equality of outcome, particularly for older people. There were distinct calls to address the “vagaries” of the redistribution formula, and more particularly that a floor mechanism be introduced to protect local authorities deemed to be in an unmanageable position.  The Minister was quite firm in his rebuttal, stating that he was unaware of any formal request regarding a floor mechanism and that it would in essence lead to a disconnect between local need and redistribution but this could quite easily resurface as a bone of contention.  

Secondly, it can be said that the Minister is throwing as much carrot as he sees feasible to encourage collaboration, with over £10million allocated to a Regional Collaboration Fund to encourage bids to administer collaboration. There was a clear division here with the opposition declaring it an ill prepared offer, not taking account of local need or understanding.

Which takes us onto the issue of performance. The Minister clearly sees a link between collaboration and performance and the publication this week of the updated Service Performance Document reinforces collaboration as a vital component in driving up standards across services showing “unacceptable” wide variation.  More interestingly, this document allows for a greater relationship between the citizen and its elected representative, brining closer scrutiny of the performance in key service areas; and it is here where the Government may draw its ammunition in terms of compelling those authorities to work together for the sake of their citizens.

Back in May 2011, Carwyn Jones made “delivery” the watchword of the way this Welsh Government should be judged – knowing full well that is other bodies, particularly local government, which deliver the delivery. The mood music this week from his trusty lieutenant Sargeant was that the time to deliver more with less and in a more joined up way is no longer an option, it is a necessity.

Written by Positif's Alun Gruffudd for the Bevan Foundation.