Transition, oil tankers and taxis

South Wales Evening Post - 12 November 2013

As I expected, last week’s thoughts by yours truly on how Wales could probably benefit from having more Assembly members and less councils provoked a couple of emails.

 You might say that reaction was colorful yet constructive although both writers took definite issue with my viewpoint that a bigger & better-resourced Senedd means added value.

 Perhaps we’ve reached a stage where it’s all a bit academic. The Silk Commission – the body set up to look at how the next stages of devolution should happen – makes their report next year. Reform is coming regardless but politicians look likely to only want minimum changes.

Steve Thomas, who heads up the Welsh Local Government Association, acknowledges that the forces of ‘rationalisation’ will strike soon enough. If you ask him nicely he might even tell you how many of the existing 22 local authorities he thinks will eventually emerge.

What he’ll also tell you however is that there are some critical issues that have so far stayed stubbornly under the radar.

One is that there is no such thing on the planet as a public sector reorganisation that actually saves money. The second is that any structural change will be pretty meaningless for most communities if Cardiff Bay continues to insist on micro-managing everything.

It has to be said that if Welsh government ministers are keen to have a cull that results in cost-savings then they need look no further than their own small army of monitoring agencies.

And dare I say it; Wales could also do no worse than to look at how the practice of localism works in England. Who knows, less emphasis on shotgun marriages and more time spent looking at what already operates well on the ground might actually produce some results. 

Turning around the tanker ...

Local authorities often get likened to oil tankers in that they both take quite a while to turn around. For myself, I always thought it was a bit of a flawed analogy if only because you never hear of a ship being steered remorselessly towards the rocks until someone eventually sorts out the policy.

It’s this context that I indulged in a spot of ‘colloquial idiom’ after reading how Swansea’s planners don’t think that Parc Tawe is part of the city’s retail core.

The rather bizarre situation arose when owners of an outdoor clothing store who wanted to relocate from High Street were told that subdividing their Parc Tawe outlet would contravene planning regulations that ‘protect’ the city centre.

I’m pretty sure that the planners never intended for the firm to then announce that its store would be closing down with the loss of several jobs – but that’s what happened.

My reading of events is that this was delegated decision made by officers – not politicians. As such, it was a straightforward interpretation of existing policy. The problem is that we’re talking about a policy that dates back to 2007 when the retail picture in Swansea and the UK was very different.

I’d say it’s time for the people on the bridge to turn the tanker around sharpish.

and finally …

I suppose I’m not really in a position to comment with any authority on recent reported criticisms about the conduct & appearance of members of Swansea’s taxi fraternity. The main reason is that I invariably only see them from the shoulders up and mostly just the back of their heads.

I’ve heard that there are a few who could probably take on the cameo role played by Paul Durden in the film Twin Town. I also know that at least one of the hackney drivers supports Chelsea but that’s about as bad as it gets.

It was in the same sceptical vein that I read a separate story about the number of unfit cabs in the city. I must admit though that this attitude changed a little last Friday evening when we were taken into town in a cab that had no internal passenger lighting, no driver identification on display, dodgy seatbelts and stank of diesel exhaust throughout the journey.

In comparison, the vehicle that picked us up for the homeward trip was clean modern, well lit and driven by an absolute gent who is a credit to the trade. 

I know that local cab drivers and operators value their good reputation and make sure of a positive relationship with customers. Our negative experience was definitely an exception and far from being the norm. 

I’m sure we will see improvements. It may sound a bit clichéd, but the local taxi service is part of a city’s shop-window as well as the welcome mat. Working together to invest in making it safe, efficient and accessible is simply good business.