Thursday, 29 June 2017

Regional Boards - is big always better?

Interesting blogpost caught my attention this morning from a councillor in far-away Bradford, don't let the politics put you off, (he's a conservative councillor), as he makes a valid point. The post concerns the rebranding of West Yorkshire Combined Authority to the Leeds City Region Combined Authority. As there is already a Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, this array of names could be confusing to 'high-powered, multi-million pound wielding international business folk wanting to invest'. The councillor is concerned that with the name change, Bradford could, in effect, disappear from the civic map, let alone the village in which he lives. Decisions will be taken by remote and unaccountable officers rather than local representatives.

Here in Carmarthenshire we are used to decisions being taken by unaccountable senior officers with our county councillors nodding through anything they suggest, and plans to combine (ie reduce) local authorities were abandoned by the Welsh Government last year. However, 'Regional' arrangements are gradually creeping in with councillors and residents having even less say in the matter and the hybrid organisations themselves are showing little sign of transparency or local engagement.

A good example is the 'Wellness Village' proposed for Delta Lakes,Llanelli (see earlier posts). It is led by the council but is in fact part of the regional ARCH Programme. Councillors were told last year that they have no decision making powers over the development, importantly, this includes the costs.

ARCH (A Regional Collaboration for Health) consists of the health boards and the universities and is in itself, somehow or other, part of the Swansea Bay City Region (SBCR). ARCH has board meetings, the SBCR has board meetings (featuring former Carms Cllr Meryl Gravell) but publication of minutes, agendas etc is sporadic or non-existent. ARCH has a sub-committee, chaired by Meryl Gravell, to oversee the Wellness project, no glimpse of an agenda there either.

These muddled organisations appear to be run on a PR basis and the resources which could have gone to informing and consulting with the public, let alone local health services, are spent on nonsensical press releases filled with meaningless puffery. Eg 'We should view ARCH as the wave on which we can all ride to help us achieve success - faster, and together'

(To be honest I'm thinking of setting up a consultancy business devising instantly forgettable titles at enormous public expense, how about the 'Carmarthenshire Regional Area Programme'?...sounds about right..and bound to get a lot of interest...)

Then you have the Public Service Board, again administered by the council but includes health boards, fire service, police, councils, NRW, etc etc. From it's origins as a talking shop it has evolved into a statutory body and can now make decisions, as well as being, to all sense and purpose, still a talking shop. The website is engagingly titled 'The Carmarthenshire We Want', I'm not sure it's the Carmarthenshire everyone wants but just in case you have doubts you are invited to 'GET INVOLVED'.

I suggested sometime ago, to the PSB, that publishing the agendas and minutes might help to inform any resident who chanced upon the organisation what exactly they could get involved in. Eventually the documents appeared, in limited form. A few '#Ideas exchange workshops' for the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act have been arranged which shows, if little else, that someone knows what a hashtag is. I say little else as, to quote the council "the PSB has already developed draft Well-being Objectives for the Plan based on the Assessment of Local Well-being" (whatever that's supposed to mean). The PSB also churns out the Carmarthenshire News, led, again, by the council.

Education has also gone regional with ERW, Education through Regional Working. Not to be confused with Estyn, the school inspectorate. The aim of ERW is school improvement and to funnel grants to the schools, and is made up of the six local authorities. Again, no agendas or minutes have been published since last Autumn.

Regional working groups such as ERW come at a price, the managing director enjoys a salary of a shade under £100k and various 'Challenge advisers', presumably to challenge schools to do better, have to be employed by the individual local authorities. That's without the websites, logos and headed notepaper. It seems to me to be little more than an extra, and unnecessary tier of bureaucracy between local education authorities and the Welsh Government and the funds would be better spent in the classroom.

Whilst Welsh councils themselves will stay geographically intact, for now, more and more services will be delivered, or administered by Joint Committees or Regional Boards and whilst the concept of regional working is not all bad, (shared costs, economies of scale, joined-up thinking, blah blah,) they need to be accountable and not duplicate the organisations we already have.
The involvement of private companies, particularly in the SBCR also precludes any assumption of openness let alone actual local decision making.

I think the councillor from Bradford sums up the prospect pretty well;
"So us councillors, for example, get pressure to put in speed cameras but have precisely zero say in whether and where such cameras are actually installed. Somewhere in the documentation of the soon-to-be Leeds City Region Combined Authority there'll be a line of budget referring to the West Yorkshire Casualty Reduction Partnership. That is what 'member decision-making' means most of the time these days."

As we know, we have basket-case councils, well, one anyway, but at least we can see the problems and exert local pressure for change, or at least try to; in the case of distant and opaque Boards and Regions, that process becomes much trickier. Big doesn't necessarily mean better.

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