Wales' councils reorganisation 'inevitable'

"I know of nobody now who argues for 22 local authorities."

Those were the words of the First Minister Carwyn Jones at his monthly news conference in the autumn.

It would seem then that there's an inevitability about local government re-organisation.

Paul Williams, the former chief executive of the NHS in Wales, is due to publish the conclusion of his review into public services next week.

It's widely expected to fire the starting gun on local government re-organisation.

Within it will be his thoughts, and those of his commission members, on what should happen to the 22 unitary authorities that were created after the last round of changes in 1996.

Frontline services

The big criticism is that there are too many councils and some are too small. There are mismatches. Cardiff for example has a population of around a third of a million, while Merthyr has a population of around 50,000.

A number of negative stories about council chief executive pay levels have all contributed to the debate, and added to the calls to reduce the overheads of 22 separate senior management teams.

In time, that could free up money to go to frontline services but in the meantime there will be a big bill to pay for the changes.

I'd expect one of the first battlegrounds to be around the cost. The consultants Deloitte has looked at the cost of a number of previous re-organisations around the UK and the average cost was above £250m.

Much will be taken up with the cost of redundancies.

In its submission, the Welsh Local Government Association says that when the NHS in Wales was restructured in 2009, senior managers who were moved to lower-banded positions had their salaries protected for ten years.

Job evaluations

It says: "Clearly there would be an expectation from the local government workforce and trade unions of fairness in these areas."

The other big costs will be IT. Since the 1990's councils have invested hugely in diverse IT systems in areas like payroll and council tax and all of these will have be connected with other systems.

There will also have to be job evaluations carried out of every staff member so new HR departments can work out how much everyone should be paid.

Critics will question whether now is the right time to carry out such big changes when councils are already facing some of the biggest cuts in years.

And are bigger councils better? The WLGA says there needs to be a compelling argument for change.

It admits that five of the local education authorities in special measures belong to some of the smallest councils but concludes that overall there's no obvious correlation between population size and performance. It says factors like leadership and deprivation have as much, if not greater influence over relative performance.

Another question is how to harmonise council tax rates. If, for example, Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire were to come together to form a new authority then the council tax payers in Pembrokeshire could face paying more as their bills are currently more than £200 a year less than in Carmarthenshire.

And finally there could be political difficulties for Labour. If there's a dramatic reduction in the number of councillors in Wales, particularly in the south Wales valleys, then many of them will be Labour members who act as grassroots campaigners at the general and assembly elections.

It may well be that Carwyn Jones has more difficulty gaining support from within his party than gaining cross-party support at the assembly.