Halve number of Welsh councils, says Williams commission

20 Jan 14
The number of councils in Wales should be cut by around half to save money and ensure they are able to provide quality services amid funding pressures, a report commissioned by the Welsh Government has recommended today

By Richard Johnstone | 20 January 2014

The number of councils in Wales should be cut by around half to save money and ensure they are able to provide quality services amid funding pressures, a report commissioned by the Welsh Government has recommended today.

The Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery, chaired by the former chief executive of NHS Wales Sir Paul Williams, said the current number of 22 councils created risks to both governance and delivery. 

A series of mergers should be completed to reduce the number to between 10 and 12 by 2017/18, the report concluded. 

This would tackle the ‘lack of resilience and unsustainable costs and overheads that small organisations face’, it stated. A merger plan should be agreed by Easter, and the Welsh Government should incentivise early adopters who wish to begin voluntary mergers.

The report stated there was a need for radical reform to governance and delivery across the public sector to respond to spending cuts, and it made 62 recommendations

Among these was a call for the ‘complexity’ of the public sector to be reduced by removing duplication and making sure organisations work together effectively.

Current relationships are overly complex, which ‘does not serve Wales well’, the report concluded. ‘The structures, relationships and responsibilities of public sector bodies in Wales, and the partnerships between them, must be streamlined, accountability clarified and synergies maximised.’

To do this, the Welsh Government must review the audit, inspection and regulation regimes to identify ways to deliver a greater focus on outcomes. 

Performance management should be simplified and streamlined through a single set of national outcomes. Local partnerships and organisations would then feed into these through ‘complementary’ scrutiny, audit, inspection and regulation regimes.

Williams said it was clear from his eight months working on the commission that services face severe and prolonged challenges.

‘The effects of recession and austerity on public sector budgets will continue to be felt for many years,’ he added. 

‘At the same time, our population is changing, meaning that the need for some of our most intensive and costly public services is bound to grow. 

‘We need a radical shift, which will mean fundamental changes to structures, roles and programmes across the Welsh public sector. We all need to embrace the need for change, and make it happen as quickly and effectively as possible. It is far better to invest in reform now, before it is too late, and to create world-class public services and a public sector of which we can all be proud.’

Current problems were ‘hard wired’ into the system of governance, he said, which demanded a coordinated programme of reform.

‘We hope our recommendations will be implemented as a whole – in isolation they will not provide the solution to the problems faced by public services in Wales,’ he said. 

‘Issues of culture and leadership, for example, are just as important to the delivery of sustainable public services as the structural changes that we recommend. We urge the Welsh Government, the Assembly and the wider public sector to proceed accordingly.’

First Minister Carwyn Jones welcomed the review and said he would consider the report in detail. 

‘This report addresses many issues that are critical at a time when the need for public services is outstripping the resources available to provide them. I have always been clear that the status quo is not an option.

‘People across Wales rely heavily on the vital services delivered by the public sector every day. Change is inevitable and essential so that our public services can become more efficient, effective, accessible and responsive.’

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