Why go fixing what might not be broken?

South Wales Evening Post - 24 June 2014 

I used to have this jokey problem-solving flowchart on display in my old day job. It kicked off with the question; "Does it work?". If the answer was yes then the advice was "Leave the damn thing alone".

Sometimes I can't help but think that maybe the same perspective should apply when it comes to the current obsession in Cardiff Bay with ''reforming'' local government.

No-one liked the arrangement of 22 unitary authorities from the day it came into being. I could go on at length about a political land-grab, but suffice to say that a lot of pre-devolution wheeling and dealing was involved. Despite a few lofty intentions it all eventually boiled down to people jockeying to get the best jobs and a decent office. 

A couple of decades later, the Williams Commission has come up with a new plan for public services. It reads well, but I'm reminded of the work of space scientists who search for the ''Goldilocks planet'' without ever touching on the practical matter of how we get there.

Speak to the policy people at the Welsh Local Government Association and you will hear the same reservations.

A big problem with the public sector is that reorganisations are often a knee-jerk reaction to an ill-defined problem or a step which enables governments to feel like they're achieving something. You only have to take a look at the health service to see what I mean.

The other confusing factor is the mixed message about what is driving the agenda for change.

Ministers insist it is not solely about reducing costs, but also boosting performance on the ground.

Would mergers improve performance? Few think so.

The counter argument from local authorities is that expensive mergers would probably only eventually result in annual savings of less than 10 per cent of what is actually needed. Something else they highlight is that how the Welsh Government's own recently published satisfaction survey showed users as generally happy with levels of service.

Whatever its current faults, and they are considerable, there is no doubt local government in Wales is capable of delivering. Call me blinkered, but I would have thought it more practical to improve the machine rather than dismantle it.

The other day I heard a senior civil servant talk about how the optimum set-up would be for a few large strategic authorities underpinned by a series of ''localised service delivery bodies''.

Maybe I misunderstood, but it sounded a lot like the return of the eight counties and 37 districts that existed prior to the last reorganisation. Funny how the more things change the more likely they are to stay the same. 

Shining example of positive networking

Spotlight on success

As something of a jaundiced conference-goer it’s rare that I emerge from one with a spring in my step.

A notable exception was the Creating Connections event held last week at the Halliwell Centre in Carmarthen. A key difference for me was the upbeat approach which went out of its way to recognise business success in the region.

UWTSD vice-chancellor Medwin Hughes captured the essence of the day by emphasising how confidence is a key factor in moving things forward.

That viewpoint was echoed by an impressive panel session, led by former BBC presenter Sara Edwards and which included the top people from S4C, Tidal Lagoon and Wolfestone Translation.

Organisers Spotlight West Wales and local champion Nigel Packer can congratulate themselves on a top-notch networking event. Nigel tells me that he ‘borrowed’ the idea from elsewhere but no-one ever said success has to be original..

I’m only sorry that I had to leave early. I’m sure I missed out.

Power scheme generates interest

Being the kind of person who wants to know what’s going on in his backyard, I took time to go along to a public exhibition in Clydach last week.

The event was staged by a firm who plan to construct a gas-fired power station at Abergelli Farm in Felindre. The £200 million project is quite ambitious and not without its detractors. 

I don’t know the firm and have no professional connection with the scheme. Having said that, I’ve been involved with a couple of similar developments and I know the benefits of providing people with an upfront explanation of what’s being proposed.

An encouraging sign is that there was plenty of information available even at this early stage plus a willingness to engage the community.

The actual decision on whether to go ahead will be made by the UK Energy Secretary, on recommendation of the Planning Inspectorate. That should not stop anyone from taking a look at the proposals. The development team are clearly interested in talking.