Welsh local government has been put on notice. The conclusion of the Williams Commission, which was set up to re-evaluate the structure of Welsh public services, is crystal clear: the status quo simply won’t do.
The prime reason why change is needed, according to the commission’s final report, is the country’s ageing population, which threatens a toxic combination of more demand for services – social care and health especially – and less income from taxes.
At the moment you’ve got 22 directors of social service, 22 assistant directors, 22 heads of children’s service, 22 heads of adult services. These people are paid a lot of money.” Robin Moulter, BASW Cymru
For now, the commission’s vision is only a proposal but there’s little reason to doubt that something similar to Paul Williams and his team’s proposals will come to pass: all four of the main political parties in Wales have endorsed the principle of fewer local authorities.
Certainly the Labour-run Welsh government is keen to get started on the reforms with first minister Carwyn Jones announcing that he hopes to reach a cross-party agreement on the way forward by the end of March.
That might not be easy.
Despite their acceptance of the principle, opposition parties have questioned elements of the recommendations, including the lack of any cost-benefit analysis of the changes. The proposal to trim down the number of local councillors in Wales is also proving a hard pill for some elected representatives to swallow.
On top of that come concerns about the impact on jobs and council budgets.
Research commissioned by the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) suggests up to 15,000 public sector jobs could go and the price of the reorganisation could reach as much as £200m. The commission disagrees and suggests a bill of around £100m.
For now exactly what this means for social services in Wales is foggy and the WLGA hasn’t estimated the impact the changes could have on social services posts.
But while jobs are on the line, British Association of Social Workers Cymru manager Robin Moulster feels that most of the job losses in social services will hit top-level posts such as directors of social services.
Ultimately, he says, the changes should benefit rather than harm Welsh social services.
Cutting management posts to invest in the front line
“At the moment you’ve got 22 local authorities so you’ve got 22 directors of social services, 22 assistant directors, 22 heads of children’s services, 22 heads of adult services,” he says.
“These people are often paid a lot of money and if that money is saved because you are cutting their number in half or even less then I would hope and expect that the money could be reinvested in frontline services.”
Another benefit of the proposals, he adds, is that there should be less bickering between councils when it comes to service users who cross local authority boundaries.
“If Mrs Jones or Mr Jones live close to a border with a neighbouring local authority there are often arguments about whether that person could use suitable resources that are in another local authority and agreements and disagreements about how much the host authority wants to charge the one that wants to use those services,” he says.
“If you’ve got 10 authorities and not 22 then you’ve restricted that problem. There will still be some cross-border issues but you will be restricting them.”
It should also help in places where Welsh councils have established cross-border arrangements in social care.
“Even when there are shared services these joint arrangements are often very tense arrangements with different political drivers in each authority, so the people running these regional services have to try and deal with two or three different masters with a slightly different political emphasis,” he says.
“For example with West Wales Adoption Service you’re talking Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Powys. How different are they? You’ve got Pembrokeshire with independents, Carmathenshire mainly run by Labour, in Ceredigion it swings between Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, and in Powys it’s different again with lots of independents and Conservatives.”
Failed merger attempts
The challenge is also highlighted by how voluntary attempts to merge social services in Wales have come unstuck.
For example, in the summer of 2011, Caerphilly and Blaenau Gwent began trying to unite their social services only for the work to collapse in April 2013 after concerns that Caerphilly would end up subsiding social work in Blaenau Gwent, something that would breach the law.
“It was reluctantly agreed that due to the high risk of financial cross-subsidisation in a fully integrated model of working, a decision was made not to proceed to work up a business case with a view to full integration,” says a spokesperson for Caerphilly council.
“This decision was not taken lightly, however given the ongoing pressures on public sector finances, it was felt we needed to do what is right by citizens of our county borough. It must be noted that significant learning was gained from the project, both from an organisational perspective, but also from what can be shared nationally, particularly around governance.”
Tony Garthwaite, an independent consultant and former director of social services in Bridgend, agrees that the changes set out in the Williams Commission’s report will help overcome some of the problems associated with bringing services together but warns that collaboration between services will still be needed.
“I was pleased that Williams said the current arrangements aren’t sustainable and you can’t keep going on in an ad hoc way with partnerships,” he says.
“But Williams also said that collaboration between local authorities doesn’t end just because you reorganise. It makes it easier but there will always be cross-border collaboration between agencies so the principle of public services working together doesn’t end with reorganisation.”
The other challenge will be the transition itself as councils seek to reorganise themselves to fit in with whatever arrangements the Welsh government ultimately decides to proceed with.
Moulster says that while the changes will, in the end, prove positive for social services, the transition period could be tough as social care leaders battle for their careers.
“Once a decision is made, the first thing will be a big scramble for jobs. Developments in services tend to slow down significantly, especially ones led from the front, because people are trying to position themselves to get a new job in the new set up or get the best severance package they can,” he says.
“I’m sorry if that sounds cynical but I’ve see it all too many times before, not just in Wales but in England as well. But after, that there is a period of people settling down and saying ‘come on, let’s make this work’ and once you’ve got the stability people will start seeing some of the benefits, particularly if there is investment in frontline services.”
Garthwaite agrees that reorganisation will be hard.
“I have lived through two local government reorganisations – one in ’74 and one in ’96 – and it is an extremely exhausting and time-consuming process that actually has a very damaging effect on capacity and the ability to maintain and deliver services,” he says.
However, he is confident that when they come the changes will do little to undermine efforts to integrate social care and health in Wales.
“There are forces at play that will ensure that work doesn’t slow down,” he says, citing the Welsh Government’s framework for integration and a joint ADSS Cymru and the Welsh NHS Confederation project that he is involved in as two examples of how integration efforts will maintain their momentum.
“There’s a real agenda to get on with making services for people much more seamless than they have been in the past and then, of course, there’s the Social Services and Wellbeing Bill which will become an act soon. The bill compels local government, health and, to some extent, others to collaborate and cooperate much more so there will be a legislative base for that.
“There’s a threat to the momentum because all reorganisations bring that threat but there are equally powerful forces at play that will keep it on track.”
What is important now, he adds, is that the process of reducing the number of local authorities is not mistaken for the solution to the pressures an ageing population will bring to social services in Wales.
“This is not a silver bullet,” he says.
“If all the commission’s recommendations were magically implemented tomorrow I think Paul Williams would be the first person to say this is just a beginning and not the end. It’s a means, not an end. There is still an awful lot of hard work ahead.”