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CIH Cymru: The pros and cons of local authority merger

Matt Kennedy reveals the findings from a survey of housing professionals on mergers in local government.

Local government reorganisation has been on the cards for some time in Wales – as a housing policy professional this is the third time I’ve worked on proposals that have considered down-sizing the number of councils in Wales.

The most recent Green Paper reflects on the fact that there has been a lot of time and effort spent on putting plans together without much large-scale change really happening. That, however, shouldn’t mask the fact that local authorities have been working hard to find better ways of delivering services together, regionally sharing expertise and resources.

Through our Tyfu Tai Cymru project we’re working on a specific aim of ensuring housing remains a priority for local government – so naturally these most recent proposals peaked our interest. We wanted to know how mergers could impact housing departments within local authorities and the subsequent impact on housing delivery. We surveyed housing professionals working within local authorities to utilise their insight and expertise and amplify their voice in discussion that so far has been heavily political and high level. Here is a snapshot of the results.

Fewer, larger authorities – what would work well?

Less than a third of those surveyed could not identify a positive impact of the proposed changes. Of those that could identify one, those mentioned included:

  • Greater options for sharing resources between authorities – particularly where an authority with an under-resourced housing department could benefit from merging with a better-resourced department. It was felt that this would ultimately have positive outcomes for tenants in improving consistency and service quality
  • More opportunities for learning between authorities and ensuring approaches reflect best practice
  • Some felt that for tenants, merger could mean a greater pool of homes to choose from – creating more suitable matches with properties
  • Gaining a larger regional picture of the housing picture was also seen as positive in terms of engaging with the private rented sector and bringing empty homes back into use.

Fewer, larger authorities – what might not work?

Respondents identified a range of concerns about the proposed merger programme:

  • More than half highlighted concerns about losing touch with local needs and accountability
  • Some highlighted the potential challenges in merging stock-retaining and non-stock retaining authorities
  • Some thought differences in demographics and geography could pose a challenge
  • Respondents told us that they were worried about job losses, policy drift and policies and strategies having to be newly written to reflect new areas.
  • There were also concerns about loss of Welsh Government revenue and capital grant allocations and the impact on the Welsh language in areas where services are delivered predominately in Welsh.

It was clear to see that opinions on the possible impact of merger varied significantly – some respondents felt strongly that it was not viable, while others felt it would be worth exploring and could identify some tangible benefits.

What was overwhelmingly clear was that communication on this topic isn’t adequate enough to give professionals the information they need to form a full picture of what could happen. A trend appeared where respondent clearly felt there were a number of unknowns and opportunities to engage and inform the process were not clearly set-out.

Whilst we know discussion about mergers may be highly political in their nature, this shouldn’t distract from the need to fully engage staff and use their expertise to inform the process positively. With many respondents putting across views that were contrary to their corporate response it is clear that they need a well-recognised voice through this process, that deals with the detail of housing delivery.

Matt Kennedy is policy and public affairs manager at CIH Cymru

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