As we step into 2019, and I step into my new role as Chief Executive of the Welsh LGA, it is instinctive to reflect and look ahead.
The American author Hal Borland once said: “Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instil in us.” For local government in Wales, experience tells us that we must be bold and brave in approaching the many stubborn challenges that our councils face.
Austerity continues to cast its long shadow over local services – despite recent declarations to the contrary. Elected members will continue to have the unenviable task of having to make ‘zero sum’ choices between closing public toilets or ending meals on wheels; cutting youth services or ending music service provision; introducing fewer bin collections or cutting back on maintaining our roads.
It is argued that Welsh councils have been sheltered to some degree from the scale of blistering cuts that have been imposed on English town halls – but that is cold comfort when local services in Wales have lost more than £1 billion since the onset of the cuts, with councils having exhausted all possible options for efficiency savings.
For local government to navigate these choppy waters, we must be agile and awake to all opportunities available to us.
Council leaders have, in recent months, been engaged in impassioned dialogue with colleagues in Welsh Government. This has resulted in an announcement of additional funding that still represents a real-term cut for councils, but is a welcome improvement on the initial provisional settlement. This dialogue shows that working together is essential to protect our cherished local services.
However, a renewed commitment to work in partnership also requires a renewed and refreshed agenda of mutual respect. Council leaders expect – and deserve – respect, as equal partners within the national government structure. With a new First Minister having been elected in Wales in the past few weeks, and a reshuffled Cabinet, I am looking forward with optimism to the opportunity to reset the relationship based on trust and mutual respect.
Despite the Herculean challenges we all face, we should not shy away from taking pride in our shared achievements. By working with Welsh Government on the 21st Century Schools and Education Programme, Wales’ school infrastructure is being transformed; Welsh councils’ efforts have resulted in Wales becoming one of the world’s leading nations in recycling; and unprecedented investment is being unlocked in all areas of Wales thanks to councils pushing the regional and city deal agenda. These are all outstanding examples of councils’ ingenuity and persistence in delivering for the communities that they represent and making a real difference in people’s lives.
I am a true believer in local decision-making and the power of our communities. Local government is the tier of government that most profoundly affects people’s everyday lives, the largest employer in vast parts of Wales, and the gatekeepers for some of the most important services in our communities.
As Chief Executive, I look forward to supporting the WLGA’s formidable leader, Cllr Debbie Wilcox, and the talented team of elected leaders from all parts of Wales in staunchly representing, defending, and promoting the interests of Welsh communities and local services.