Alternative Facts – Austerity and Welsh Local Government

Welsh Government Minister, Alun Davies, claims in his Green Paper that we need local government to be less local in Wales because

Current spending on local services in Wales increased by over 4 per cent between 2010-11 and 2017-18 (in cash terms). In England, it fell by 12 per cent. In these circumstances, continuing with 22 authorities often doing the same things in different ways 22 times over is not sustainable”.

This is one of those alternative ‘facts’ which does not reflect the actual evidence.

Between 2010 and 2017 school funding in Wales was a protected part of the local government Revenue Support Grant. Take that funding out, as happens in England, and the cash cuts to all other local services in Wales are just as draconian as they are in England. Welsh Government funding for Welsh local authorities on services other than education has fallen by 35% during this period.

Alternative ‘Facts’ are once again being manipulated to justify the unjustifiable.

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Welsh Government’s ‘Alternative Facts’

Welsh Government is proposing, once again, to take the word ‘local’ out of local government.

It argues that that Welsh local authorities have failed to take up the challenge offered by former minister, Mark Drakeford, to put in place further arrangements for working together.

The evidence is entirely contrary to this assertion. It it is one of those Alternative Facts which we should hope not to find in a Welsh Government Green Paper.

In recent years Welsh local authorities have created strong networks to share arrangements for city deal funding which cover matters such as regional transport, economic development, skills development, land use planning and housing supply.

Welsh local authorities are operating regional consortia to provide support for school improvement.

Welsh local authorities are working closely with Health Boards to coordinate the provision of health and social care – and much uncelebrated progress is being made.

Over 80% of the volume of local government activity is covered by arrangements which combine the local with the regional.

Welsh government denies these facts in order to justify yet another attack on local democracy.

It is unnecessary. It will be overturned; but in the meantime it is a huge distraction to the challenge of serving communities in Wales whilst providing robust opposition to the UK Government as it seeks to diminish all forms of collective action.

The Alternative Facts of Putin, Johnson, Trump and Welsh Government’s Alun Davies

When certain politicians do not like tested and confirmed evidence they make up ‘alternative’ facts. Putin says he has no soldiers in Ukraine. Trump says the climate is not changing. Johnson says that Brexit will lead to £350 million a week more for the NHS. All of this is contrary to know and tested facts.

Alun Davies the Welsh Government’s Local Government Minister says that local authorities in Wales need to have an average populations size of 300,000 in order to meet contemporary challenges. There is no factual evidence to support this proposal by Alun Davies. It is an alternative fact.

All the analysis of the performance data of the existing 22 local authorities in Wales leads to the conclusion that the larger authorities do no better than the smaller ones. Welsh local authorities collectively compare well with the super large local authorities in England.

Across the world research after research has tested the relationship between size and performance in units of local government – and found none.

In Finland the average population size of a local authority is 16,000; in Sweden it is 33,000; in Denmark, after a recent reorganisation, it is 56,000. In all these countries the local authorities perform a wider range of functions than in Wales, which currently has an average population size of 141,000; and they do it at least as well.

When Governments lose any sense of purpose they seek to reform Welsh local government. The Tory Ted Heath did it in 1972. The Tory John Major did it in 1994. Surely a socialist Welsh Government has better things to do in 2018.

 

Socialism, State Aid and the European Single Market

Like each and every part of British politics, the Labour Party is confused and divided in its approach to our future trading relationship with the European Union.

The objective must be to maximise the open exchange of goods and services in order to ensure the futures of our manufacturing and service industries. In Wales, in particular, we have competitive manufacturing businesses in, for instance, metals, automotive and aeronautic manufacture, pharmaceuticals – all of which require open access to the European market for their future.

At the same time, as socialists, we want to provide protections for workers and the environment, ensuring that there is no Tory led ‘race to the bottom’ in a search for trade agreements in Asia and the Americas.

And yet, there are those who claim that continued access to the European single market causes problems for socialists because of European regulation on ‘state aid’.

These regulations which are intended to ensure that markets are not distorted through governments giving unfair advantage to one organisation over another in another country. As an example, state aid regulations ensure that steel producing organisations in Wales are not ‘undercut’ by steel producers elsewhere in Europe being unfairly aided by other governments. It is impossible to imagine any trade agreement which does not include such provisions.

Within the single market, governments support businesses. They provide training. They foster research and development. They provide supportive locations. They contract for goods and services with requirements for the local sourcing of labour and supplies. All this is possible so long as it does not favour a specific business or country.

It is a myth that the single market requires the privatisation of public services. If a government chooses to procure a service above a specified value then any organisation in the single market can offer to provide. However if a government chooses to provide a service through its own resources then there is no market and there are no competition requirements and no state aid regulations.

At least since the 16th century the British relationship with Europe has needed to be seen through the prism of our relationship with the island of Ireland. It is now clear that the free flow of people, goods and services across the island of Ireland requires British membership of the European Single Market. There is no good reason why state aid regulations should inhibit a British socialist from accepting this fact.

How many Welsh Assembly Members?

An Expert Panel has recommended that the number of Welsh Assembly Members should increase. The primary reason given is that the scrutiny of Welsh Government would be improved if Assembly Members sat on fewer scrutiny committees.

I am one of those increasingly rare people who is convinced that a civilised society benefits from active political processes and the presence of professional politicians. I have no opposition in principle to increasing the number of Welsh Assembly members; but I am not convinced that the case is well made in this report.

Almost everyone, excepting perhaps Trump and Putin, would agree that political systems benefit from the challenge to Governments that might be brought by high quality political scrutiny. However, most would also agree that political scrutiny which actually impacts on public policy and its implementation is very, very difficult to find.

The two houses in the Palace of Westminster preen themselves on their established status but finding the examples of effective scrutiny is a search for hen’s teeth. The Iraq War, PFI, introducing Universal Credit, the economics of Austerity, Brexit – where were the insightful critiques that made a Government stand back, reflect, change course?

I have just spent 5 years contributing assiduously to the scrutiny process of Rhondda Cynon Taf Council – commenting on school attainment, support for vulnerable adults, the financial management of £billion capital programmes. I cannot think of a single Council policy that was informed by my earnest contribution to scrutiny – even though I shifted mountains by building coalitions around actions in support of my local community.

I spent the best part of a decade advising, in a senior and special way, the Welsh Government. I cannot think of a spending plan, a manifesto commitment or a policy direction that was directed or deflected by Welsh Assembly scrutiny.

And yet we are told that the urgent need for effective scrutiny requires more Assembly Members so that no member sits on more than one or two scrutiny committees. No evidence is presented that members who sit on fewer committees are more effective. No analysis is given of what makes one scrutiny committee or member more effective than another. There is just a rather lazy assertion that more members lead to better scrutiny.

Given the expertise of the Panel, I would have liked to have seen a comparative analysis of parliaments across the world, finding those elusive examples where political scrutiny can be shown to have an impact. If impact can be shown to correlate with the number of committees upon which a member sits, then the case would be made.

I suspect that effective political scrutiny correlates more closely with the vibrancy of the civic society, the contribution of the media, the vitality of the political parties, the political engagement of universities, a political culture which is diverse and reflective, the diffusion of political power. We need to invest in professional politicians but we need to recognise that their contribution cannot be nurtured in a vacuum.

 

Wales led the way on PFI

In England the Labour Party is committing itself to not introducing any new PFI schemes and ending at least some of those in existence. A PFI scheme is one where a private organisation invests in its ownership of an asset, such as a school or hospital, and leases that asset to a public organisation such as a local authority or health board – usually on the condition that the private organisation can profit from all maintenance contracts.

In Wales, the Welsh Government decided to end the introduction of PFI schemes in 2001. At the time we were ridiculed and lambasted by New Labour who claimed that we were sacrificing the quality of public service to some outdated commitment to public ownership.

Looking back we can see that the new Welsh Government was turning its back on both the marketisation of public services and the centralised state bureaucracies of old. It was pioneering a model of decentralised public services which engaged citizens in creating and developing their own communities and networks of mutual support.

We understood that citizen centred public services could not be achieved when assets were owned by distant and detached global corporations. We understood also that PFI was passing on huge costs to future generations in an unsustainable manner.

As the debate on PFI re-emerges in 2017, it would be good if some acknowledgement was made of the record of innovation in Wales.

Why do I always vote Labour?

On 8 June I will be voting for my Labour candidate, Owen Smith, in the General Election in eager anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn being supported by the Westminster Parliament to lead the UK Government. This may not be ground breaking news; I have voted for Labour candidates in the twelve general elections since I was first able to vote in 1970.

Why am I so undiscerning, unable to respond to the merits of any particular candidate or campaign? It is because at all times the choice is between two unchanging philosophies.

There is the socialist philosophy which proclaims that we are social beings whose lives are always enhanced by the extent to which we cooperate in caring for each other particularly when we are at our most vulnerable, teaching and learning from other, building local communities alive with sociability, fostering economies which combine enterprise with security and equality. Socialist governments aim to nurture the support we freely give each other. It is an optimistic philosophy which offers hope and trust in each other. Socialists smile.

There is the alternative conservative philosophy which proclaims that we are competitive individuals hard wired to gain advantage over each other. For the conservative there is no such thing as society, only random collections of individuals seeking to maximise individual gain. A conservative economy is marked by ever increasing levels of gross inequality which must then be protected by a strong and repressive government. Conservatives are distrustful and fearful of their neighbours. They scowl.

Of course the Labour Party does not have a monopoly on socialist and progressive values. I am continuously challenging the Labour Party to be ever more imaginative in achieving its values. I have helped create coalitions with other parties such as Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats. But, for me, the choice is always between Labour and the Tories, hope and fear, equality and inequality, cooperation and competition, support and repression.