It is an inescapable fact that Wales is a small relatively rugged country, now this is not a problem it is a virtue, a positive and should work to our advantage in so many ways. Our local government structure should also reflect this ensuring that services are delivered as locally as possible – it clearly does not do this. As a small country what might work better, judging by the experience of other small countries e.g. Norway Slovenia, etc) would be to focus primarily on having efficient small district level councils rather than the creation (or recreation) of ever larger artificial local government structures.
If we accept that the highly politicised 1992 reorganisation has not worked, then making the local government units bigger (again) won’t help things much. A real opportunity to take out an entire tier of local government has been missed. On a very basic level we need to actually work out exactly what we want local government to actually do and what services we want or don’t want it to provide. Once that has been done then we can move on to address the fundamental problem of local democracy and local accountability for decisions made.
Simply tweaking a local government structure, that is nineteenth century at heart, just won't do. Our existing local government structure is badly funded and barely democratic combing a dreadfully low turnout with the local peculiarities of the first past the post electoral system and a real remoteness from local people. If when the dust settles we end up with 5, 8, 10 or 12 new local authorities the only certainty is that a real opportunity will have been missed to reshape local government in a meaningful way and to make it democratically accountable to local people.
Take Housing, or more specifically Housing development, this has always and probably will remain for the foreseeable future at least a contentious issue. At heart of the problem lies the fundamentally flawed local government LDP (Local Development Plan) many of whom focus on maximizing the amount of housing that can be constructed, regardless of actual local demand for housing. In the South East and the North East, planning for housing is influenced by cross border pressures (and demands) from the Merseyside conurbation and greater Bristol.
House prices in the southeast and the north east of Wales are also affected by higher house prices across the border, which in close conjunction with perceived lower house prices this side of the border increase pressure for development. Over-development is now a key issue (in south east this is very true along the Gwent levels and in and around the Wrecsam in the north east). Local authorities seek to cash in by maximizing the amount of housing constructed, well beyond the ability of local infrastructure to cope with increased demands and devouring our green spaces.
The LDP and the UDP (Unitary Development Plan) have reached the point where, much like the structure of our local government, they are no longer fit for purpose. The National Assembly has pretty much been reasonably comfortable with the current local government and planning set up and has failed to exercise any meaningful overview or to be honest (save for between 2007 and 2011) actually realistically plan the development of our country. The proposed reform of local government is on a fundamental level little more of a tweak rather than much needed root and branch reform.
On a local, regional and a national level we have serious issues with planning and the provision of services, something which fundamentally affects almost every aspect of public service provision. Whether we are talking about our NHS, our education system, our emergency services, our public transport or infrastructure projects we need to develop a detailed and comprehensive planning system that takes into account local needs, local demands, our national interests and on a basic level our geography. Simply trying to make the flawed Anglo-Saxon model, whether in education, the NHS or in other areas apply to a fundamentally small country is clearly not working.
At the heart of the proposed local government reform, is a fundamental failure to bring in Single transferable Vote (STV) as is used in Northern Ireland and Scotland, to make every vote count and our local authorities democratically accountable. People don’t vote for a variety of reason, a lack of political choice, a lack of any real alternatives and perceived enshrined one party dominance (a problem that affects significant portions of local government in our country).