Postcode pressures undermine democracy

John Dixon discovers a contradiction with the devolved Cardiff Bay government taking the whip to local authorities

One of the unintended (I hope) consequences of devolution has been the adoption in Cardiff Bay of an increasingly centralist view of local government in Wales. On reflection, there is certain logic to it. A government in a country of three million can keep tabs on 22 local councils much more easily than a government in a country of 50 million can deal with 350 councils. And it is easier for a small country to argue for, and insist upon, consistency of service provision.

In any event, it is surely inarguable that since 1999 successive Welsh Governments have taken an increasingly hard line with local authorities, with the current Minister, Carl Sergeant, taking the hardest line of all.  As Malcolm Prowle has pointed out in an article on ClickonWales, the Welsh Government has been much more interventionist with local authorities than has the UK Government.

Although the Minister sometimes gets criticised for his approach, it’s probably fair to say that there is a degree of cross-party consensus on the issue as well. Although the parties don’t all put it in the same words, and sometimes some of them criticise the loss of local democracy, all four have at various times and in various ways complained about what they call ‘post code lotteries’. There is an implicit view that services should be consistently delivered to a consistent standard.

It’s hard to argue against that concept when we are dealing with services such as education and social care –the ‘statutory’ services which local councils are obliged to supply. However, there is more of an argument for variation when it comes to non-statutory services such as leisure facilities.

The question, though, is where does it leave local democracy? It was one of the points raised twice by Malcolm Prowle in his article. The extent to which Welsh Ministers are instructing local authorities or intervening in their decisions ignores the fact that the elected councillors have their own democratic mandate.  That raises a wider question. What is the role or value of democracy and elections in relation to services which are tightly defined from the centre?

We are also seeing an increasing drive from the centre to form consortia or joint ventures to deliver services, not always conforming to a consistent set of boundaries. The democratic accountability of those consortia inevitably becomes more opaque and more distant from those who were, in theory, elected to run the services.  At the same time it enables all concerned to avoid getting to grips with the real issues. These are how many local authorities do we need in Wales, how should they be financed, and what should their functions be?

To be meaningful local elections should allow parties, groups, or individuals seeking election to suggest varying local priorities?  That may mean spending more on some services and less on others, changing the nature and quality of some services as a result.  If it doesn’t mean that, then the only role left for local councillors would be to scrutinise executive decisions taken in accordance with central instruction.  And if I wanted to put in place a means of scrutinising the local implementation of central policy, I’m not sure that electing party A or party B, and setting up a whole political and committee structure, is the best way of getting the right people to do that.

An additional irony in all this is that because they are so heavily dependent on central funding for their expenditure, and because that funding is increasingly tight, they are, local authorities across Wales are slashing at non-statutory services in order to concentrate on the core statutory ones. In short, they are restricting their activity to precisely those fields where they have the least ability to make different local decisions on behalf of those who elected them.

The net result is that we have a structure of local democracy which raises only a small proportion of its own funding, and spends most of its time and energy discussing issues where there is little or no scope to do anything particularly different or innovative. Meanwhile, the Welsh Government views local councils as being, first and foremost, delivery units for central government policy.

We really should be biting the bullet rather than skating around the issue. My preference would be for a structure of local authorities, which is funded entirely (or as close thereto as possible, allowing for some central ‘Robin Hood’ style adjustments to ensure that the most deprived areas still receive a fair share of resources) from locally raised revenues. Each authority should then be free to run those services in whichever way it chooses, based on the democratic mandate given to it by its local electorate.

If there are some services where we collectively consider that consistency of approach and standards of delivery are too important to allow local variation, then we should recognise that such services are best delivered centrally, and we can then hold the Welsh Government directly accountable. We should be promoting a  ‘no excuses’ culture where those taking the real decisions take the responsibility and answer to the electorate for their performance, rather than a culture in which it is always possible to blame someone else.

I’d prefer to leave as many services as possible in local hands, and accept that there will then be differences in standards and quality.  However, on that I suspect that I am in a minority. Opinion has moved on to the point where there’s a fair degree of consensus about the need for consistency in some fields. A hard-nosed look at where that takes us would probably leave local authorities primarily responsible for the non-statutory services of which they are currently so busy divesting themselves.

How many authorities we need should follow, not precede, the decision about functions.  If their prime functions were to be the non-statutory ones, then the argument about Wales having ‘too many’ authorities probably falls. The driver for a reduced number relates primarily to the statutory functions such as education. At the moment, we’re being driven in the direction of larger and less democratically accountable units without even asking the fundamental questions, let alone answering them. It’s not good for local democracy.

John Dixon blogs regularly on Welsh matters here.

One thought on “Postcode pressures undermine democracy

  1. Some excellent points here. The Welsh government’s attitude to local democracy is shameful. They plead devolution to Westminster and centralisation to our own local authorities. John Dixon is quite right: take over those functions we consider should be all-Wales and leave the local authorities to run the rest as they see fit. No need at all then to merge local authorities. They should also be allowed to levy some taxes and get a share of business rates to increase their revenue base. Without a respected and functioning local democracy there is no real democracy at all, just a circulation of oligarchs.

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