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Rhetoric and reality

Betsan Powys | 11:20 UK time, Tuesday, 29 June 2010

_47203988_carlsargeant170bbc.jpgIf you chat to Assembly Government ministers these days, the impending public spending cuts don't take long to come up and it's a safe bet that very soon after that, the need for collaboration between public sector bodies isn't going to be far behind.

Collaboration, it would seem, is the silver bullet that will save our services.

At the Welsh Local Government Association conference in Llandudno a couple of weeks ago, the Local Government Minister, Carl Sargeant, brought with him a pretty clear message - from now on, councils should fill senior officer vacancies through joint appointments with neighbouring authorities. This, he said, should be "the default position, not just one possibility". Get it?

You should. The aim is clear: to get councils to share or even merge departments, starting at the top and resulting in more efficiently delivered services. But a number of stories in the last couple of days would seem to illustrate that reality has begun to meet rhetoric head on.

A small story buried on page 13 of the Daily Post today should start ringing alarm bells in Cathays Park. "Conwy halt child services merger" reveals the plan to appoint a joint Head of Children's services between Conwy and Denbighshire councils has foundered.

Denbighshire, it seems, were up for it but Conwy's cabinet members have got cold feet. Reading between the lines it seems that councillors in Conwy were concerned about the implications for around 200 employees. They clearly saw the appointment of a single director as the first step towards the full merger of departments between the two councils.

This, as I said, is where the rhetoric of efficiency hits cold hard figures.

As one fairly hard nosed individual who's writing mainly in red ink these days said to me the other day, when you're dealing with a deficit, it's all very well to work more efficiently so that, for example, eight people do the same amount of work as ten but you don't actually save a penny unless you can save on the two salaries of the people who are by now surplus to requirements.

A crude analysis, but we're trying to deal with reality here, not rhetoric. It seems the Conwy councillors looked down the line and didn't like what they saw.

Over the weekend, it also emerged that http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/mid_wales/10416856.stm the much vaunted merger between Powys County Council and Powys Local Health Board has also hit the rocks. This is of an order of magnitude greater than the Conwy-Denbighshire plan but, it seems, it's facing even greater problems in reality.

This time, both organisations were in favour but a report by consultants KPMG found "major obstacles" to the plan, which could have saved millions for both organisations, as well as delivering more integrated services.

Again what looks great on paper seems an awful lot trickier in practice.

So where do we go from here? It seems ministers are now looking for more powers to force public organisations into collaboration. They've considered amending the recent Local Government Measure 2009 to insert the powers but decided to wait for the next Measure relating to local government to be laid before the Assembly.

What would that mean in practice? Well, ministers could issue statutory guidance to ensure collaboration happens. Not as much banging heads together as forcibly merging heads of departments, you could say.

But where does that leave reports like the KPMG on the Powys merger, or the the worries of the locally-elected councillors of Conwy who are concerned about jobs and service quality?

There's rhetoric and reality and bridging the gap between the two is surely the biggest challenge now facing all sides.

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