Carwyn to renounce Local Government Reorganisation

Huge congratulations to the Welsh Labour Party. Against all predictions, today’s election results provide a mandate to Carwyn Jones and his Assembly colleagues to continue providing the Government of Wales. For over a century Labour has been the party of Wales and once again the people of Wales confirmed this reality.

Carwyn, as in the last Assembly, will lead a minority Labour Government. Once again there will be no coalition and no majority for any legislative proposal to diminish local democracy by reducing the number of principal local authorities in Wales.

In recent years councils have been radically re-shaping public services in the context of 40% austerity cuts to most services and have been doing so in a debilitating environment of constant denigration and threats to their very existence.

Sadly, the last Welsh Government accepted the analysis of the Williams Commission with its advocacy of top down, large scale oganisational structures last seen in the heyday of Henry Ford and Joseph Stalin. All the opposition parties in the Assembly election specifically set themselves against the Williams prescription.

One of the first acts of Carwyn’s new Government must be to state that there will be no bill to reduce the number of principal local authorities in Wales, recognising that any such bill will fail to gain a majority. This would release Welsh local government to build on a certain future; create the regional structures necessary to promote economic development and regional investment; and also empower local towns and rural communities. This would be an exciting agenda which would enthuse local councils and gain a large majority in the new Welsh Assembly.

 

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A Concrete Vision for Welsh Local Government

I took a break from canvassing for Labour candidates in the Welsh Assembly election to spend last weekend at the Porthcawl Jazz Festival. It was an opportunity to revisit the Grand Pavilion and evoke memories of my teenage years in the 1960’s – weekly rock bands each culminating in a mass brawl: a sort of ritualised Porthcawl v Cornelly Haka, participation in some very odd amateur dramatics and a two month stint as Assistant Stage Manager at a Stan Stennett pantomime. A far cry perhaps from the official history of eisteddfodau and the magnificent transatlantic address of Paul Robeson in 1957.

Until last weekend I had not marvelled at the achievement of creating a concrete dome structure in 1932, combining the most advanced building material with Art Deco detail and classical design. All this was achieved by the Porthcawl Urban District Council serving a population of less than 5000 residents. Faced with closure of the coal port, the town’s original raison d’etre, and the impact of a global economic depression, the local council re-imagined the town as a tourist destination with a pavilion and palm court to match the promenade. They matched their vision with large scale investment and organisational determination.

As the newly elected Welsh Assembly re-imagines Welsh local government for the 21st century, will they share the vision of the Porthcawl UDC in 1932?

City Deal Confusion

The South East Wales City Deal puts down the foundation stone for a great leap forward in growing the economy of this part of Wales (note the topically Maoist reference!)

By bringing together funding from the UK Government, Welsh Government and the ten local authorities, we will be able to achieve far more than any of the partners could achieve on their own – with £1.2 billion to be shared among imaginative projects in transport infrastructure, labour skills and business innovation.

We are consciously building upon the experience of successful city regions throughout the world in which scores of community based local authorities work together and with business and national governments to create the integrated mix of people and places necessary for economic growth.

It is going to be brilliant and credit belongs to so many people from all parts of south east Wales who are making this happen.
But only yesterday the Welsh Government published its (Anti) Local Government Bill which seeks to abolish the local authorities which are helping to make this happen and places a moratorium on the creation of new collaborations and partnerships like the City Deal. This is the same Welsh Government which in 2012 abolished the regional Transport Alliance which was the precursor of the City Deal.

I am sure that this apparent contradiction is just the confusion of competing values that happens in any government. I am confident that the Welsh Government will soon come to recognise that allowing and supporting community based local authorities to combine to promote shared interests is the way that successful regional economies grow throughout the globe. The Welsh Government and the Welsh Assembly will dump the ill considered Local Government Bill and put their energies into making the very best of this very important City Deal.

Deal or No Deal

Labour and Plaid Cymru voted together in the National Assembly this week to give the Welsh Government powers to prepare for a reorganisation of local authorities if, after next year’s Assembly election, there was a majority which could agree on such a reorganisation. The Government agreed not to use its newly gained powers until after the Assembly election. It was a strange deal – the bill could just as well have waited until after the election when the lie of the land was better seen.

There is clearly no deal yet in place between Labour and Plaid Cymru on the nature of local government in Wales. The Labour ministers remain wedded to seven or eight authorities, far too big to be local and often too small to tackle the regional issues. Labour would remove all the community connections necessary to make social democracy effective and legitimate; and at the same time Labour would not fill the regional void that has long characterised Wales – the void in regional governance which has prevented any development of the ‘metro’ transport system in South Wales.

Plaid Cymru has an interesting alternative which retains the potential of community self governance whilst creating at the same time the potential for regional governance. They propose retaining 22 principal local authorities whilst at the same time creating a legislative framework which requires those authorities to create regional combinations for tasks such as regional transport, economic development and promotion, school improvement, the commissioning of health and social care, fire and police.

Plaid Cymru suggests four combined authorities. Personally I would prefer the boundaries of the three combined fire authorities that already exist: north, mid and west, south.

The differences between the Labour and Plaid models are currently vast. The Labour model is based on the centralising, controlling, hierarchical simplicity of the Williams Report. The Plaid model builds up from communities, relying on the more modern notions of multi-tiered network governance. They are worlds apart. Labour is wedded to the ‘first past the post’ electoral system. Plaid seeks more proportional systems.

Localism and the Metro

The ‘metro’ is one of the most exciting visions to hit South East Wales since the Bessemer Converter. By vastly improving interconnectivity across the region we can create an economic region of 2 million people with opportunities for markets, labour supply and innovative business clusters.

Enhanced inter-connectivity is the hall mark of any successful economic region. Take any such region, Stuttgart and Vancouver are reasonable examples, and we find that their development begins with investment into a planned network of transport links. From there, the region can be the subject of economic planning and promotion with developed inter-relationships between businesses, research and educational centres, labour and customer markets.

It is very significant that such regions retain institutions for community and municipal governance. There are usually scores of local authorities contributing to a successful region of 2 or 3 million people, each contributing to effective forms of network governance.

The metro is our vision of this fundamental building block for future success. But where are we in delivering this vision? We lack a consensus on any of the critical paths. What is the role for different technologies – train, light or heavy, tram or bus? What are the funding routes? Where is the governance?

The Welsh Government has appointed a South East Wales City Region Board. Amazingly, this is separate from the Welsh Government’s Advisory Board on the Metro. In addition the ten local authorities have formed a regional structure which allows them access to the UK Government’s City Region Fund for regional transport. It is a bugger’s muddle of such absurdity that only we in Wales could invent it. The sad effect is that we are dithering on the one project that could really make a difference.

We need one single partnership into which we can pool all the different funding sources. Local authorities have borrowing powers and access to the UK city region fund. Welsh Government controls the allocation of European funding and can make its own funding contribution. All we need to do is create a single legal entity which involves both and get on with it. Why is it so difficult? If only we could dump all this nonsense about reorganising local authorities, we could do something really useful.

Why have Councillors?

Welsh Government is planning to complete a 40 year programme of reducing the number of councillors by 90%. Does it matter?

As in many walks of life, the less obvious a councillor the more effective she or he is likely to be. I have worked with councillors for many decades. I disagree with many. I like most. I respect almost all.

Let me share some experiences of the past week. I met two councillors who have been leading the governing body of brand new school. They were clearly the bridge between the community and local authority as the school was designed and built. They played their part in creating and supporting the professional leadership of a school which is now achieving well beyond expectations.

I listened to another councillor who shared the experience of working to untie the knots of Welsh Government’s disjointed application of three competing anti-poverty programmes to one small community. He could have walked away; he was in no way a responsible player, indeed he was often made unwelcome, but instead he was committed to the hard graft of making the unworkable work better.

For myself, I spent a productive day talking to parents, transport managers and bus companies to ensure that a school bus could be re-routed to avoid a new construction site. Within 24 hours we turned a hostile stand-off into a new route to school.

There are those who always believe that fewer councillors lead to higher ‘calibre’. Historically, each councillor cull leads to a lower proportion of women and a higher proportion of sharply suited individuals who are less engaged with their communities and more concerned with the next stage of a political career. Fewer councillors would be another stage in the separation of politics from people.

Ever Fewer Councillors

pgriffithsblog

The Welsh Government is consulting on its proposed directions to the Local Government Boundary Commission. The effect of the proposals would be to reduce the number of Councillors from 1248 to 616 as the Government seeks to reduce the number of local authorities to 7 or 8.

It seems that Wales now has a pattern of halving its number of Councillors every 20 years. The 1972 Local Government Act reduced the number of councillors from over 6000 to 2200. The 1994 Local Government (Wales) Act reduced the number of councillors to 1200 and the proposal is now to reduce again to 600. Up to 1972 there was a councillor for every 500 residents in Wales; the proposal for our future is to have one councillor for every 5000 residents.

This changes our political culture. Not so long ago most extended families could refer to a family member who had been…

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