Daran Hill explores how the assembly election will play in terms of local government reform.
This election is not a stand alone affair. Indeed, another election depends very directly on the outcome of this one. We have a local government election scheduled in Wales for next May – and it’s already been postponed by a year once – so this sets a very clear timeframe which any new Welsh Government needs to operate within. Bluntly, if local government is to be reformed then this needs to happen as quickly as possible at the start of the next Assembly if that legislation is to take effect.
As Labour is in government and is likely to remain so (in some form or other) let’s look first at their pledge, which is to: “create stronger, larger local authorities, as well as stronger town and community councils, leading to the devolution of powers from Cardiff Bay.” And that’s it. A simple restatement of the position that the party has held for a number of years, lacking detail and positioning, and not even reaffirming the map of eight or nine local authorities which Labour unveiled last summer. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of a way Welsh Labour could be more evasive and less committed to a policy which almost reads like a general principle rather than a definitive commitment.
Which, of course, is exactly what Labour has to do for two reasons. Firstly, they are facing a huge backlash in their own party over the merger policy, which has been handled in a less than uniting manner by the party leadership. Stalwart figures in the Labour controlled Welsh Local Government Association have hardly been subtle in their criticism. To say something harder than the waffly pledge the party has set out risks alienating them even further. Secondly, Labour knows it will not have enough seats to get the reforming legislation through in the next Assembly without the support of another party. So it needs to keep the promises vague because it knows that it needs to work with someone else to achieve this objective. But what’s the choice?
The most natural partners for Labour are as firm with their own opinions as Labour is vague. Thus the Welsh Liberal Democrats have restated their belief that the Single Transferable Vote is essential for local government and also explicitly pledged to “repeal powers that allow Ministers to merge councils by decree.” Further to this there an absolute commitment that the Local Government and Boundary Commission “draw up alternative proposals for the restructuring of local councils in Wales based on natural communities, and which are locally accountable and have demonstrable public consent.” These are a very tough series of pledges to navigate around for Labour, and allow very little wiggle room, since they are structured in the polar opposite direction to the one which Labour intends.
Similarly, Plaid is pledged not to combine existing local authorities, but instead to “legislate to create up to six regional combined authorities comprised of existing local councils” all of which would be chaired by a directly elected executive mayor. These bodies will also get additional powers in respect of planning and service delivery, thus reflecting a decentralisation from Cardiff Bay that Plaid also believes is essential to get local government to actively co-operate with any changes.
Thus, with the two most likely coalition partners for Labour setting out stalls which are difficult to accommodate, do the others offer a more accommodating position. The Welsh Conservatives don’t seem to on the first reading, since they “will allow local authority mergers only with the expressed consent of the public through a referendum.” This requirement does on first reading again seem hard for Labour to swallow but it does, at least, not rule out the option for any merger into larger local authorities.
Looking at UKIP, they are pretty silent on how a new local authority structure might appear instead pledging “to promote devolution to local councils and communities” with services such as economic development decentralised. This again would appeal to many in local government (if they could bear to admit an UKIP policy appealed), since it would beef up their powers and buy them in, something which would probably be needed as part of the horse trade over any future mergers. This isn’t a prediction of what will happen since it is probably impossible for Labour to make any sort of deal with UKIP, especially on an issue as sensitive as this for many in the Labour grassroots. Yet despite this, there is certainly nothing contradictory between fusing the Labour and UKIP pledges on this particular policy area.
All of which creates a situation in which Labour has no easy, natural partners on the matter of local government reform. Whether or not Labour forms a coalition or a government at the start of May, because of the timing issue the clock is ticking loudly and quickly. Surely in the current climate, and based on the pledges as they stand, the biggest likelihood is that next May we will see Wales elect councillors to the same authorities in the same way we did back in 2012. Change may be just too difficult.