The Significance of Special Measures

The Williams Commission considered the international evidence that large scale does not lead to improved performance or reduced cost. It did not deny the evidence. However, it said that this evidence was irrelevant because six ‘small’ Welsh authorities were in special measures for their education service. Government ministers repeat the argument – reorganisation must happen quickly because of the special measures. It is therefore necessary to focus on the nature of these special measures. 

Anglesey is a good place in start. Like Italy it has often found it difficult to sustain a reliable political leadership – nobody has suggested abolishing Italy. For a period Welsh Government appointed Commissioners to replace the Council’s leadership and during this period Estyn piled in saying the education service was unsatisfactory. And yet, Anglesey has on the evidence of the Welsh Government’s school banding indicators the best performing schools in Wales.

Pembrokeshire has a very different political culture to Anglesey. Far from having weak leadership it has suffered from a lack of internal challenge – Blair’s Government had much the same problem a decade ago. The effect was that when there needed to be a challenge over child protection measures in the county’s schools, they were lacking. External intervention was justified; but it is not justified to conclude that the whole education service is unsatisfactory.  

Education performance in the uppermost parts of the South Wales valleys is unacceptable in all the local authority areas – Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, Caerphilly, and Merthyr. Whatever the scale of the local authority this problem has not diminished. In the case of Blaenau Gwent there has been a take-over by the Welsh Government for several years and, on the basis of the data, little has changed. Ad-hoc special measures are not a solution, merging local authorities will not be a solution. We need to have a national priority for the social, economic and educational regeneration of the upper valley areas built on a genuine partnership between local communities and the Welsh Government. Absorbing those local communities into larger scale local authorities in which they have a minority interest will achieve nothing.



The Return of the Crachach

The Welsh Government’s enthusiasm for moving to less local government in Wales is music to the ears of the Welsh crachach. 
There has sometimes been a romantic view of Wales that our lack of large scale indigenous capitalists somehow makes us classless. Nonsense! We are a highly stratified society in which the ingenious Welsh concept of the crachach refers to that well established elite which expects to govern notwithstanding the coming and going of assemblies and councils. 
When elected local councils were first established across Wales by Acts of Parliament 1888 and 1894 the great Radical MP, Tom Ellis of Meirionydd, was hugely enthusiastic. He saw this, quite rightly, as the opportunity for Y Werin, the common people of Wales, to share control of their own communities and destinies. He saw it as one in the eye for the crachach – the landowners, pastors and professionals – who had assumed their right to control.
 The crachach have spent the last century and more seeking to undermine local government. They created the quangos. Ultimately they supported devolution – any alternative to local government would do. Always the call was for less local government. Their particular bete noire was always the councillor – how could ordinary people have the calibre, the articulation, the vision to shape their own communities.
 The Williams Report has been much welcomed by the crachach of Wales – they have waited over a century for its arrival.

Merging Local Authorities – An Undeniable Case for Referenda

Nowadays we have referenda for a wide range of decisions which affect the way in which we are governed. The Tory Party is split over whether the UK should stay in the European Union so the Prime Minister promises a referendum. The Scottish National Party needs a reason to exist so a referendum is called on the union. The Welsh Assembly has referenda on its powers at least once a decade – should it exist, should it make laws, should it levy taxes. There are local referenda to replace a council leader with a directly elected mayor. There are local referenda to create or abolish community councils. 

The Williams Report on Welsh public services recommends that local authorities should be merged, taken over or abolished. These are elected bodies which in all logic have as much democratic legitimacy as any assembly or parliament. The proposal is that the self government of places like Anglesey, Ceredigion, Wrexham, Bridgend, Merthyr Tydfil, Blaenau Gwent. Monmouth, Vale of Glamorgan should be ended. I personally am not persuaded that these places would be better governed through absorption into larger entities. But it should not matter what I think – the electorates in each of these places should be given the choice



The Great Redwood Myth

Welsh folk lore has it that our current structure of 22 ‘unitary’ local authorities was imposed on a reluctant Welsh nation in 1994 by the much famed pantomime villain John Redwood. Given the Redwood connection, our local government structure must have been driven by an ideology contrary to Welsh values and the quicker we do away with it the better – so the argument goes. 

The only problem of this version of events is that it is contrary to the historical facts. In 1974 the original structure of Welsh local government: 181 counties, county boroughs and districts, was reorganised into 37 districts and 8 counties.

In 1990 the Wales Labour Party published its proposals for further reform which were that there should be 20-24 unitary authorities alongside a new Welsh Assembly. Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats had similar proposals. 

The Tory Secretary of State for Wales between 1990 and 1993 was David Hunt. When Hunt published a Green Paper and then a White Paper on the creation of unitary local authorities he was building on an existing consensus among the political parties of Wales. Hunt set the course for a further reorganisation of local government because that is what his Tory colleagues in England and Scotland were doing. The John Major Government was meddling in local government structures because that is what governments do when they lose all other sense of purpose.


Far from being an initiator of local government reorganisation, when John Redwood became Secretary of State in 1993 he inherited a firm policy commitment embodied in a published White Paper and a draft Bill already approved by the British Cabinet. His reaction to this inheritance from his predecessor was that sort of bored, languid disdain which characterised his whole tenancy at the Welsh Office.


Westernal Mail denies evidence of Ceredigion

Education editor, Gareth Evans, in today’s Western Mail argues that “smaller Welsh councils suffer from a lack of capacity and many lack the understanding needed to oversee wholesale change”. He manages to make this assertion when reporting the wholly positive report on Ceredigion by Estyn, ignoring the fact that with a population of 75,000 Ceredigion is one of Wales’ smallest local authorities. On the evidence of school bands the even smaller authorities of Anglesey and Denbighshire out-perform Ceredigion. And still, the Western Mail argues that ‘big is best’.


Educational Attainment and Welsh Local Authorities

Both the Williams Commission and Estyn assert that educational attainment in Wales would be increased if local authorities were larger. This evidence provides a clear refutation of that assertion. 

Wales has a sophisticated performance indicator of attainment in schools through the banding system which weights achievement at GCSE with indicators of social disadvantage. No indicator is a perfect measure and this one will no doubt be improved with experience; but it is useful indicator which is informing the management of performance. 

The following table provides an average figure for the school bands in each local authority area. This provides an indicator of the quality of challenge and support provided by the local authority. Band 1 is the highest performance; band 5 the lowest. 

Local Authority                     Average School          Population

                                                Band 2013 

Anglesey                                 1.8                                 69,900

Neath Port Talbot                   1.82                             139,900

Denbighshire                           2.12                               93,900

Swansea                                  2.36                             238,700

Ceredigion                              2.43                               75,300

Flintshire                                 2.5                               152,700

Gwynedd                                2.57                             121,500

Conwy                                    2.72                             115,300

Vale of Glamorgan                 2.87                             126,700

Newport                                  3.12                             145,800

Rhondda Cynon Taf               3.16                             234,000

Bridgend                                 3.25                             139,400

Torfaen                                    3.29                               91,200

Pembrokeshire                         3.37                           122,600

Carmarthenshire                      3.38                            184,000

Powys                                     3.38                             133,100

Wrexham                                 3.44                             134,100

Caerphilly                                3.46                             178,800

Monmouthshire                       3.5                                 91,500

Cardiff                                     3.55                             345,400

Blaenau Gwent                       3.75                               69,800

Merthyr Tydfil                          3.75                               58,900 

A review of the table will quickly lead to the view that there are large and small local authorities at the top and bottom of the table. For those of us who enjoy statistics – using the standard Pearson correlation coefficient to test for any linear relationship it is calculated that r=0.08. This means that the correlation is very weak but that in this set of data smaller authorities on average perform ever so slightly better than larger authorities. Basically it accords with the international research that scale is not a determinant of performance in local authorities.


Challenging the Williams Report

A few weeks ago the Williams Report on Public Service Delivery in Wales concluded that we would be better off with half as many local authorities in Wales – 11 local authorities rather than 22. The leaders of our political parties in the Welsh Assembly have been tripping over each other to offer support for this direction of travel and there is every danger that we will be rushed into this reorganisation with no real evidence to support the proposed changes.

Academic researchers from across the globe have tested the evidence on whether we would be better off with bigger local authorities. No such evidence exists. The assumption that costs are reduced by having bigger local authorities, fewer councillors, fewer senior managers is not borne out by international evidence. The assumption that performance is better in bigger local authorities is not borne out by the evidence in Wales, the UK or elsewhere.

Why therefore are we rushing down this road? My own theory is that there are members of an elite in Wales, hovering around the bars and cafes of Cardiff Bay, who have no sense of place or community. In their own sad, rootless lives they resent that sense of local belonging that characterises the rest of Wales. They dismiss the rest of us as parochial, lacking their strategic vision. They want to put us in our place and take away our local councils.

We need to challenge this rush towards less local government. The aim of this blog is to make that challenge. Watch this space!