Mike Cuddy reflects on the findings of the Independent Review on Community and Town Councils in Wales
Peter Black in his click on wales piece in July asked “Is it time to think about Community Councils?”, observing that they are “the Cinderella of local government, the forgotten few”. In fact there are 740 of them, covering most of Wales outside the main cities… and yes, it is time to think about them.
In his résumé of the strengths and weaknesses of the sector, he misses the work of an Independent Review Panel set up by Mark Drakeford as part of wider local government reform. For the past year this panel has been collecting evidence about the sector and seeking to clarify:
- What Community and Town Councils are: including tackling the big questions such as whether Community and Town Councils should exist, coverage and types of Community and Town Councils.
- What Community and Town Councils do: looking at aspects of the role such as local delivery, local voice and identity and engagement.
- How Community and Town Councils do it: exploring capacity and capability.
- How Community and Town Councils are held to account: considering democratic accountability.
The Independent Review Panel provided its final report to the Cabinet Secretary, Alun Davies AM, at the beginning of October.
We have been here before. In 2003 Sue Essex, as Local Government Minister, commissioned a report from Aberystwyth University. Many of its recommendations were not followed up, so the sector’s profile has remained largely unchanged. There are obvious reasons for this, not least the uncertain context. Whilst the review of local government is an ongoing affair – for community and town councils this means that without a clear understanding of the future form and function of Unitary Authorities they will not be able to plan for their own future activity. Hence, Peter Black observes in his piece, “although being remarkably diverse….. in the vast majority of cases (Community Councils) get on with their job without making too much fuss or upsetting any apple carts”.
This diversity, particularly in terms of size, is often cited as a disadvantage to any reform. Peter Black, whilst not referring to the review, anticipated some of its recommendations. Fundamentally, the panel recommends that councils be retained and, perhaps more of a challenge, that they should cover all of Wales. The panel concludes:
“The case has been made to retain Community and Town Councils on the basis that they are very local, are democratically accountable and are able to raise resources. All areas should be supported by a Community and Town Council and should be established in all areas that haven’t currently got one.”
The really important recommendation for the sector concerns purpose. Presently councils are confronted by a pandora’s box: many permissive powers but few obligations outside the audit regime. The panel recommends:
“We believe there should be a clear distinction between what a Community and Town Council is responsible for and what the Local Authority is responsible for. This will provide clarity for the public and drive change. Community and Town Councils should, by and large, be responsible for all ‘place-based’ services and Local Authorities should be responsible for ‘people based’ or statutory, regulatory or strategic services.”
This is the basic challenge for the sector given the size profile. As Peter Black observes: ”Is it just a matter of scale? The evidence suggests that this may well be the case”. These are important points; how does the panel address them? The report concludes:
“We believe that every Council should play the same role that we outline elsewhere but have the scope to play that role differently whether they choose to:
- deliver it themselves,
- group together to deliver or
- commission services from other Community and Town Councils or their Local Authority or Third or Private Sectors.
“It is important for them to work effectively and collectively with Local Authorities. Too often these relationships feel forced and Community and Town Councils are seen as ‘pests not partners’ ”.
To distil a central focus for the sector, One Voice Wales (the representative body for Community and Town Councils) has always sought to defend the sovereignty of councils and avoid what is the easy functionalist solution: mergers.
We are conscious of how deeply some councils fear losing their independence. It is surprising given the interest in identity and place in Wales, given the social capital that the extensive coverage of Community Councils represents, that more is not made of this rich resource. In my view, this cultural density should be perceived more as an advantage than a problem: a body that is accountable to the whole of the electorate within its boundary and has the power to raise revenue via a local precept and to undertake projects based on local need.
Raymond Williams, often basing his pioneering work on culture during his formative years in Wales, captures the bases of communal action in such concepts as the “knowable community” and “structures of feeling”. These ideas are just as powerful as functional comparability.
A more imminent economic imperative is the renewed interest in localism – not the limited idea of the previous UK Government, but localism which represents a challenge to austerity, globalisation and “the left behind”. In Wales this is reflected in a developing policy focus on places. Besides the pragmatic political drive to provide a policy response with relevance to everyday experience, theoretical approaches are being articulated in rebuttal to failed economic models. These aim to restore the collective foundations to everyday life in economic terms. Locally this focus is gathering pace following early work by the Centre for Regeneration Excellence in Wales on the foundational economy in Tredegar and, more recently, with a conference in September organised by WISERD, which attracted contributions from Europe and elsewhere in the UK.
On the local policy front, One Voice Wales is engaged with the Welsh Local Government Association and Wales Centre for Voluntary Action to explore ideas around a community planning model. This aims to view the Community or Town Council as a catalyst for encouraging links with the third and private sectors to support the delivery of local services and economic development initiatives, thus supplementing their relationship with principal councils, achieving economies of scope rather than economies of scale.
In addition to the theoretical work, the realisation that readily available data at the Town and Community level is missing is being followed through by the IWA in conjunction with the Carnegie UK Trust. This is an extension to work by Carnegie in Scotland that aims to provide the data to compare and contrast, through a project to cover places of 1000 residents upwards, ‘Understanding Welsh Places’.
Whilst the Independent Review Panel covers many more issues, the remaining problem is all Wales coverage, particularly in cities, and the associated claim that we are creating another tier of governance. In my view this may prove less of a barrier than it appears. The place-based services which the Panel refer to are mainly non-statutory offerings additional to statutory duties, evolved local initiatives together with unwanted assets. For example Solva Community Council has been instrumental in developing Solva Care domiciliary care services in their locality to meet local needs, and Pontyclun Community Council took over the day to day running of a local day care centre in 2013. It is apparent that the core finance available, as Mark Drakeford has emphasised, is not likely to sustain many non-statutory services into the future.
Community Councils are local authorities, which raise a precept, already. The heterogeneity of arrangements envisaged by the Panel will mean distinct local partnerships with principal authorities following joint local engagement. This suggests that the perception that an alternative competing tier will suddenly arise is far-fetched.
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