Friday 19 April 2013

Dancing In The Streets

Sir Paul Williams - a champion for consumers of Welsh public services?

You could be forgiven for not noticing but the Welsh Government has just announced a major review into how public services are run. First Minister Carwyn Jones quietly announced a "Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery" yesterday in a written statement.

He explains: "The establishment of this Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery provides an opportunity for those who are involved in delivering services, those who are politically accountable for them and users of them to examine how public services are governed.

"Since public sector budgets are likely to continue to tighten, and demand pressures grow, there is a clear need to examine how services can be sustained and standards of performance raised, so that people in Wales can continue to receive and influence the public services they need and value."

Let's hope that there will be a real change of approach. The whole Devolution project got a bad name when the first government in Wales set up 22 Local Health Boards with their panoply of exec and non-exec "jobs for the boyos" as it was rudely but I'm afraid universally perceived in saloon bars from Chepstow to Holyhead, a horrible mistake only recently put right by that exceptional consumer champion Edwina Hart. Incidentally Hafal opposed that terrible NHS structure in our formal submission on the plan all those years ago and we went on saying so right up to abolition - few others have that honourable track record.

The Commission will be chaired by the former Welsh NHS Chief Executive, Sir Paul Williams. A good choice: I sat on the review of mental health services with him a few years ago when he was an NHS Trust Chief Exec: Sir Paul is definitely an insider but I can assure you that he isn't one of those "provider interest" merchants looking out to protect senior colleagues. He can be tough and he might well come up with something radical.

Everybody thinks that the main issue is the number of local authorities in Wales. But I hope Sir Paul is smarter than that and looks at the big picture. It would be easy just to suggest that there should be seven or eight single-tier mega-councils. On the face of it this would mean cost-savings and, yes, many Welsh citizens would welcome a reduction in the number of paid politicians and multiple senior officers running tiny councils.

But actually such councils (like the old pre-1996 County Councils) would be very distant from the electorate - literally. It would mean, for example, a councillor from Llanelli making a decision about people in Fishguard or Borth. Might as well be in Cardiff for all the difference it would make.

And THAT would be my point. Mega-councils are neither one thing or the other - you might just as well centralise. Wales is a tiny country of just 3 million, small enough to run many things successfully on an all-Wales level - quite different from England which is seventeen times bigger.

So do I mean have no Councils at all? No indeed: I suggest keeping the present councils but radically reducing their functions by centralising education and merging social services into the NHS. The Councils would then be local, much smaller, more or less like the old district and borough authorities of yesteryear, and would not need professional politicians running them.

Radical? Yes. Controversial? Only to those few politicians and senior managers with vested interests. The rest of the Welsh public wouldn't shed a tear for the LEAs or "locally accountable" social care with its infuriating disconnection from health (which has fragmented and held back mental health services for years). They might even be dancing in the streets.

Go on, Sir Paul, be bold and drag Welsh public services into the 21st century!

The dog's breakfast aka Welsh local government...