Wellington goes to war

I'm told the leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, Bob Wellington, is not usually someone who seeks the headlines.

So his speech at its annual conference in Llandudno went further than many expected.

There were a couple of stand-out lines:

"Let me say it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that we can't have English-style cuts combined with Welsh government-style ambition."

In reference to more spending on the NHS, he said: "...local government in Wales will be squeezed of its functions, essentially an empty vessel reflecting on the glory days when it ran over 700 functions."

He also ripped into some of what he called easy management slogans such as "do more with less" and "continuous improvement" when budgets were being cut.

Dire warnings about public sector finances have been common over the past five years, but the context of this one is interesting because it plays into the arguments about reorganisation.

I lost count of the amount of council leaders I spoke with who outlined a variation of theme that budget cuts were their main priority and the last thing they needed was to deal with reorganisation.

In response, the Local Government Minister Lesley Griffiths said they couldn't afford not to reduce the number of Welsh councils through mergers.

She also hinted strongly that the expected 1.5% reduction in council budgets for 2015/16 is likely to be significantly worse.


There is deep scepticism among many council leaders that a reduction from 22 councils to between 10 and 12 (as outlined in the Williams Commission five months ago) will ever get off the ground.

When I put this to Lesley Griffiths, her response was defiant. In fact she said she had never spoken to anyone involved in local government who believes the status quo can remain.

Her big carrot for the holy grail of a voluntary merger is that council elections will take place a year later than the rest, that is in 2018.

Will it be enough? One senior member of the WLGA told me anyone considering an early voluntary merger would need to be sectioned under the mental health act.

Humour aside, there is a serious point here which is whether the Welsh government can change the mindset of council leaders so they accept that change is inevitable.

Having spent the day talking to leaders and chief executives in Llandudno, I don't detect that feeling of inevitability.

There is a huge debate going on in local government. It is whether councils will emerge from the age of austerity being anything other than organisations that provide the services such as education and social services which they are required to by law.

The jury is still out. Bringing the numbers down won't provide all the answers, even Lesley Griffiths admitted it's not a silver bullet.

The question is whether it will help or hinder the situation.