Modern local councils should be empowered, not shackled to Welsh ministers

Peter Black says local government reform must do more to empower communities.

The Welsh Assembly has recently approved stage one of the Local Government (Wales) Bill and we are currently in the process of tabling amendments for stage two.

Given that the vast majority of this bill is concerned with voluntary mergers it is arguable that it is the closest the Assembly has come to lame-duck legislation.

Six Welsh Councils put forward proposals for a voluntary merger, one of those proposals tallied with the template upon which the Welsh Government is relying. All of those proposals were rejected out of hand.

The likelihood of further voluntary mergers being put forward within the timetable that the Minister has set out is virtually nil. The Minister has said that he will reconsider the timetable if proposals come forward after publication of the map, but, given the way that the previous applications were treated, I think it’s unlikely that any local authority would commit resources in that direction again.

In the circumstances the existence of this legislation on the statute book is academic. It signals a direction of travel and is there if needed. In the old days it would just gather dust, nowadays it is not worth the megabytes that it uses up.

The reason we are in a two stage process at all is complicated but essentially boils down to a complete lack of consensus on the way forward for local government. There is agreement that 22 councils are too many, but nobody can agree what is a suitable number to replace them, what boundaries they should operate within or how many councillors each should have.

This non-consensus has been made worse by the Welsh Labour Government’s insistence of retaining ownership of the process. The Williams Commission was set up by them without reference to any other party. They tried to make it cross-party but failed to include a Liberal Democrat in its membership, whilst the other parties were not asked who should represent them. As a result no other party feels bound by the outcome.

The outcome itself was calamitous. A thick volume of analysis and recommendations written in impenetrable management-speak, which tried to set out top-down remedies for essentially community based, elected bodies. The Williams Commission insisted on publishing their own blueprint for reorganisation that relied on moving existing units of local government around like pieces on a chess board and had no regard to natural communities. As a result they satisfied nobody but themselves.

The report itself is now stymying the process as Welsh Government have become obsessed with publishing their own map and have been helplessly casting around for allies with whom to seek agreement. Nobody wants to touch this process with a barge pole and if we are to get any movement at all then the only real alternative, barring a Labour majority government after May 2016, is to bin it and start again.

We are now looking at the third reorganisation of local government in Wales in just over 40 years. It is crucial that this time we get it right and that whatever pattern of local government emerges should be sustainable for the long term. It is also right that if we are to have larger, less local authorities that they are properly accountable, transparent and representative.

That is why the Welsh Liberal Democrats are insisting that they will not support any reorganisation unless the new councils are elected by a system of proportional voting. We believe that the outcome of an election should reflect the way people voted because in that way councils will be more accountable. That in itself will produce more effective and efficient services.

We also believe that the new councils should be based on natural communities. That is why we want to throw all the maps away and ask the boundary commission to carry out its own review instead. In that way we will have a proper, objective process based on agreed principles and conducted by professionals.

The further mistake in my view was to confine the review solely to local councils and not seek to further devolve powers within Wales. This was an opportunity to widen the democratic basis of our public service delivery that was missed.

Any reorganisation of local government in Wales should reconsider who delivers key services at a local level and that should include the devolution of powers from the Welsh Assembly to the new councils. It should empower and enable councils and local people, giving them greater ownership of services.

I think it was a mistake to exclude the local health boards from the ambit of this commission. As was made clear by the then outgoing Public Services Ombudsman, these bodies are largely unaccountable to the population they serve, operate in an opaque manner, are not scrutinised or challenged in any detailed or meaningful way and deliver services that often overlap with those of other public sector providers such as local councils.

We also need to consider the role of Town and Community Councils and the National Park Authorities. Although there are good examples of effective and efficient community councils delivering good services at a local level, many are too small to replicate that provision. A sensible re-ordering of community councils could enable them to fill the gap in ultra-local service provision created by the reorganisation of unitary authorities.

Newly reformed local authorities should be more accountable, constituted on a scale that can deliver services efficiently and encompass a broader range of responsibilities so as to produce a more strategic and joined up approach to governance.

We need to examine the case to pass over responsibility for public health and community health care to these locally elected councils so as to create a single health and social care function that will eliminate duplication and waste and be accountable to local electors.

We should also look at passing other strategic responsibilities to Councils such as those for post-16 education so that they can deliver the 14 to 19 agenda as a seamless whole.

We could give councils greater strategic control of transport within their area including the power to deliver cross-modal transport solutions and a wider economic development remit. We might wish to pass on to them responsibility for community regeneration including the future delivery of communities first, and enable them to develop local economies by empowering them to regenerate town centres, and stimulate local job creation, including allowing them to retain some of the proceeds of business rates in order to incentivise economic growth and develop the local workforce.

If we are prepared to grasp the nettle and be radical then the possibilities are huge. Alas the Welsh Government’s ambition is conservative and limited. They are pursuing the lowest common denominator without a proper vision for the future of our public services. They want to pull control of services into the centre when they should be devolving it to communities.

If the devolution project is to succeed then we need to do more than sit in Cardiff Bay legislating. We need to empower people and communities not take them for granted. I am not holding my breath.

Peter Black is AM for South Wales West. He is the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Local Government.

9 thoughts on “Modern local councils should be empowered, not shackled to Welsh ministers

  1. Given the strength of feeling on electoral reform currently, the Lib Dems and Plaid should work together and say to Labour, “no reduction in councils without proportional represeantation.” They have an opportunity, with Labour’s lack of a majority, to exercise considerable elvwerage on this. If Labour refuse, they would either have no reform or have to do a deal with the Tories. Given those two alternatives, STV might no longer seem like the worst option.

  2. So no leadership or vision at the top again then – perhaps a pay rise will instantly transform Ministers performance ?

    And at the bottom amusing that you illustrate this essay with a picture of Pembrokeshire County Council’s HQ – a nest of vipers of national standing.

    Not sure the public would buy into the concept of ‘List’ councillors with a flaky indirect accountability to the electorate just to support a PR balancing programme. All of the expenses & allowances but no music to face ?

    I agree there is a big and necessary job to be done but like the author I am not holding my breath. Still watching one group of politicians trying to reorganise another group of politicians always makes quite a spectacle.

  3. Brian, STV does not require a list. You generally have several councillors to a ward. In STV you make the wards big enough for three councillors. Voters than just write 1,2,3… down, to order the candidates as they wish. They can put as many or few numbers down as they like. Parties put up three candidates each if they want to try and get all the seats. It is now used for local elections in Northern Ireland and Scotland., It is used for Parliamentary elections in the Irish Republic. No system is perfect but that one is popular with voters where it has been used and is certainly better than first past the post.

  4. Brian, the choice of illustration was not mine. More importantly STV does not involve lists of any kind. It retains ward councillors but the outcome in each multi-member ward reflects the way people voted so it will effectively do away with outcomes where the same party wins all the seats in any one ward. It already works successfully in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Eie.

  5. Peter Black is right. We are to be saddled with essentially the same set of weak local authorities which have as poor a record of delivery as the Welsh Government itself. The flaws of the Williams report are manifest.

    What we need are strong, competent local authorities, and not many of them, if they are going to act as a counterweight for too-big-for-its-boots Cardiff, which is after all the national capital. We should forget historical boundaries and seek a tier of 5 – 7 regions supported by upgraded community councils. These regions should be centred on Bangor, Wrexham, Newport (!), Swansea, St Davids – Haverfordwest and Aberystwyth – Llandrindod Wells.

    The emphasis should be on the regions, not cities, and equity among them. The current plans for the Cardiff and Swansea city regions are inappropriate and will only further impoverish what should be thriving smaller towns and their agricultural hinterlands. Intra-regional transport links should fit their scale, and not promote unsustainable commuting. Ultra-speed (sic) broadband everywhere is one key element of any sensible transportation strategy.

    On transport, I take issue with Peter to a degree. The professional transportation skill base here is too narrow, and overly-reliant on cross-border consultancies. I favour a pan-Cymru integrated transport authority (ITAC) to take responsibility for strategic planning for both land use and transport. ITAC would quickly see off such fatuous and gimmicky schemes as the proposed New M4 and cable cars in Cardiff, and focus on north-south routes, urban light rail and other sustainable modes.

    I suspect that the people of Cymru have had enough of top-down planning, and especially of middling-quality governance that is indifferent to local needs. The priority ought to be sufficient household incomes derived to the extent possible from local employment. Foremost among the latter must be the refurbishment of the housing stock, but there are many other unexplored options for employment in deprived areas. The Wales TUC has shown leadership and imagination in asserting the importance of an industrial policy, but as Andy Bevan and Terry Marsden have recently reminded us, we need to recognise the preeminence of our rural sector in providing food and maintaining environment quality.

    There is much that I love in Cymru after living here for nine years. But there is much much more to be done if we are to lift our country, my adopted country, to provide for the reasonable expectations of all of the people. It is disgraceful that one-third of children are living in poverty.

    Meanwhile, the unionist parties, with the honourable exception of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, are engaged in displacement activities. A fixation with the grandiose, Ministers have forgotten that their primary role is to serve us. We should remind them in 2016.

  6. I also agree with Peter that health boards should have the same boundaries as regional (sic) authorities. As he says, we need to improve both accountability and transparency (remember ‘the most transparent government ever’?).

    The reform of the voting system is essential. Once again, Election 2015 has shown how perverse FPTP is.

    All voting methods have their faults. In Australia, the proportional representation system used to elect the lower houses in some states is balanced by preferential voting for the upper houses.

    We must ditch FPTP – but as the Tories have just won an election under that system, Westminster will not be reforming anything!

    We will have to do it ourselves…

  7. What everyone seems to be ignoring is the ‘local’ identity of local government.

    The county boundaries chosen at the last reorganisation reflected local identity wherever possible. This was a deliberate choice, generally supported at the time. It was understood that these would not always be optimal in terms of efficiency, but it was intended that local authorities would co-operate and share services That this has not happened is a failure of leadership but does not negate the basic principle of the primacy of localism.

    Similarly, ward boundaries should first and foremost reflect organic communities, not the convenience of political parties. Indeed, local government would be better off without the baneful and unnecessary influence of the party system altogether. The problem with all forms of proportional representation is that they weaken or break the link between communities and their elected representatives, and remove the political class even further from the people they are supposed to represent.

  8. I agree with JWR and the importance of localism and a sense of political community. There is o single ideal size for local authorities so mergers of some functions while remaining distinct for others makes a lot of sense.

    My only quibble is that STV while more proportional than FPTP, does not break the link with local representatives. It requires multi-member wards or constituencies. That means each constituent will have more chance of having “their representative” ie the one they voted for. It also enforces infra-party competition so if the voters prefer one person or tendency in a party they can express the preference. That weakens party discipline, which is why politicians don’t care for the system. Where it exists, voter
    s love it.

  9. That power ought to exercised by strong regions and a confident and competent government should not undermine the importance of the localism agenda.

    I envisage the community councils (as many of them as recognise themselves as communities) being elected by STV, the regional councils by PR, the Senedd by PR, the upper house by STV and the head of state by STV.

    The community councils could be deliberately non-political, but best if there were transparency instead of unknown independents. These bodies need to be small and effective.

    More important than the fairly limited party discipline exercised in Cymru is that we break down the fiefdoms, croneyism, dynastic successions and nepotism that exists here, fortunately not everywhere.

    To be clear, I have no objection to Kinnock Jr, and others of his talent. They will be very fine representatives of our country. It is ability and dynamism we should seek in our leaders – men and women who can help us all stand tall for Dyfodol Cymru.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy