Big Shake-Up In Public Services

The Welsh Assembly Government is to create a series of new groups to help those who deliver public services work more closely together. Local Service Boards will be in charge of directing services that involve a number of different bodies. Ministers have been told that services in Wales from refuse collection to care for elderly people are delivered in an inefficient and patchy way. They have promised changes “on an unprecedented scale”.

The announcement is in response to a report published in July by Sir Jeremy Beecham, a former chairman of the Local Government Association. Sir Jeremy said public services from policing and hospitals to schools and rubbish collection, were overly complicated, suffered from skill shortages and organisations “looking after their own patch” rather than collaborating to improve things.

The assembly government’s response is to say it will be putting itself at the heart of changes, with a series of national standards so that people can expect the same level of service across Wales. It is to create the local service boards – probably 22 to match the number of councils in Wales – with a unit in Cardiff Bay to monitor their progress.

The local service boards will start in the next financial year, with some gaining budgets for some services in 2008-9. The boards will gradually take on more power and gain bigger budgets. Each board will also involve organisations for which the assembly government does not have direct responsibility, such as the police.

The changes aim to ensure local service boards make public services fit around people’s needs. However, the boards will have no legal powers, at least to begin with. Instead, they will build on existing partnership arrangements.

Ministers insisted they were not creating a new level of bureaucracy but instead are bringing together those bodies which do the work currently. They said their plans involve “change on an unprecedented scale” but they are also following the Beecham report’s advice and ruling out a wholesale shake-up of local council, for the time being.

Sir Jeremy Beecham said he felt encouraged by the response to his report. “It is action focused and constructive, demonstrating a serious commitment to tackling all the issues we identified,” he said.

Liberal Democrat Assembly leader, Mike German, also welcomed the plans but said he had worried about some aspects. He said: “I have a number of concerns, not least the over-centralising top-down tendancy that runs through these proposals – and indeed has been a hallmark of this Labour government.”

Plaid Cymru said the proposals lacked ambition and would only increase bureaucracy. A spokesman said they were expecting new ideas but said the report identified problems but made “little progress on how they will be addressed”.

Welsh Conservative local government spokesman, David Melding said it was “too little too late” and promised that an assembly government run by his party would give councils more freedom to decide their own priorities.