Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Local Sovereignty I - Principles, Practices & Problems

It's that time of year again. Time for another in depth look
at Wales - this time local government and how it could
be reformed.....with independence in mind, of course.
(Pic : Urban75.org)

Considering last week's news, the timing is ironic I'll admit. Hopefully it'll provide a little bit of comfort that someone out there's thinking of how to change things permanently, so the circumstances that led to that (ideally) won't have to happen again.

This is the first in a five six part look at local government in Wales, where I think it's gone wrong, what I think can be done to reform it (using examples from elsewhere in the world), possible ways it can be funded in the future and how local government could fit into any (independent) Welsh constitutional arrangement.

I'm going to take a "systemic" approach to this – moving up the tiers of government step by step from community (Part II) through to national (Part VI) and looking at finances separately (Part V).

There's been lots of debate on this issue recently, and it's clear that significant local government reform is forthcoming - probably by the end of the Fifth Assembly (2020/21). I'd like to, firstly, link to a blog by regular commentator on here, Cibwr – which (perhaps until now, and others which will be mentioned later) is the most detailed proposal on (radical) local government reform so far.

The principle of local government

The system of local government used in most of the United
States, perhaps Greater London too, could be
termed "autonomous plus".
(Pic : forbes.com)
National, devolved and supra-national governments can't see and do everything. It's a standard principle – regardless of where you are – that powers have to be decentralised or delegated down (or up) to an appropriate level to allow for efficient governance.

For example, national governments can't deal with the minutiae of playground maintenance or grass trimming whilst trying to balance things like national security or passing criminal laws.

Different nations have different ideas on what powers should be delegated to local authorities, how those local authorities are arranged as well as their levels of autonomy.

Federal/Autonomous Plus – Directly-elected mayors with executive powers governing a city or county. Local councils could have legislative powers. This type tends to have exclusive authority over certain areas, and may control functions such as law enforcement. Examples would include most of the United States.

Regional – Regional assemblies/governments with powers over constitutionally defined areas. It may or may not include a directly-elected mayor, but usually has a "figurehead" leader of the government. Most operate along a parliamentary system. There are also weaker tiers of local government below them for settlements or districts. Examples would include The Netherlands, Czech Republic, Argentina, Poland, Japan and France.

Two-tier authorities – A separation in size and powers between a larger "county" and a smaller "borough/district". The county controls "big ticket" items like education or social services, while the borough/district controls localised issues like leisure services, planning and licensing. This existed in Wales until 1996, and still exists in parts of England. It's also relatively common in the rest of Europe.

Unitary authorities
– The combined powers of two-tier authorities under the control of a single authority. This is the current situation in Wales, as well as Scotland, some parts of England (like Cornwall) and the Republic of Ireland (when reforms come into force in 2014).

Appointed – A local authority where the executive is appointed by the central government. Examples would include Pakistan, some parts of Russia, Saudi Arabia and China. This doesn't happen in Europe as far as I can tell.

Welsh Local Government : A brief history

Medieval Wales was divided into cantrefi ("hundreds"/"one hundred settlements"), which were themselves sub-divided into cymudau ("communities/commotes"). The cantrefi would have their own court, and played a role the administration of Welsh law. The cymudau could be compared to a feudal estate or township, with a local chieftain/lord as guardian.

When the Laws in Wales Acts were passed, Wales was divided formally into the 13 traditional counties, which formed the basis for parliamentary representation. These were further sub-divided into urban and rural district councils.


Although county seats in the UK Parliament were gradually phased out, this situation remained unchanged until the Local Government Act 1972. The Act originally aimed to create 5 counties and 36 districts/county boroughs – a "two-tier model". However, it was amended and resultingly created the 8 preserved counties of Wales : Gwynedd, Clwyd, Powys, Dyfed, West Glamorgan, Mid Glamorgan, South Glamorgan and Gwent.

In the early 1990s, the then Welsh Secretary, David Hunt, launched reforms of the two-tier system. I presume the idea was that smaller, unitary authority subdivisions would lead to "streamlined local government", more "local accountability" and "closer government". There were squabbles over how many unitary authorities would be created and their names. The original 23 was changed to 21, but it was finally settled on 22 unitary authorities under John Redwood. They came into being in 1996, and that's been the situation to the present day.

How Welsh local government works

Wales' current 22 unitary authorities, represented
by more than 1,200 councillors.
(Pic : scoopweb.com)
1. Unitary authorities

As said, Wales has 22 unitary authorities responsible for (broadly speaking):
  • Social Services & Housing
  • Schools (including staff recruitment and school transport)
  • Environmental Health & Trading Standards
  • Electoral Services & Registrars
  • Licensing & Planning (Emergency, Strategic & Development Control)
  • Libraries, Leisure Services & Recreation
  • Waste Collection & Management
  • Highways (except trunk roads)
  • Some aspects of welfare administration (i.e. Council Tax Benefit)

Wales has 1,264 local councillors, elected by first-past-the post - some in multi-member wards, some in single-member wards. In the 2012 local elections, 93 councillors (7.4%) were elected unopposed. Wards and their boundaries are decided by the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales, who are currently undertaking a national review, seeing a marginal reduction in the number of councillors.



Since 2000, local authorities in EnglandandWales have generally been run by a cabinet system. The leader of the majority/largest party in the council usually becomes the Council Leader, and appoints councillors to executive roles to (politically) oversee council departments. The rest of the councillors scrutinise via committees. Prior to 2000, as I understand it, decisions were made by committees themselves, with no separate cabinet.

Welsh councillors are paid a basic salary averaging £13,175 per year, with top ups for cabinet/executive roles, in addition to an expenses system. The leader of a large local council in Wales (i.e. Cardiff) is paid £52,000 per year for example. Councillors' pay and expenses are set by the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales.

Executive decision-making powers rest with local civil servants, or "officers". These are full-time, professional roles – amongst the highest-paid roles in government. The highest-ranking officer, and the person effectively in charge of all local authority services, is the local authority Chief Executive Officer.

The officers are in control of the day-to-day management of council departments. The job of the cabinet and councillors in relation to them is to approve, debate, amend or reject the recommendations of officers and provide some political accountability for officers' decisions. Some powers may also be granted exclusively to officers to use on behalf of the local authority, called "delegated powers/authority". For example, serving planning notices or buying equipment.

In addition to various fees and fines, unitary authorities levy two taxes – Council Tax (which raises around £1billion annually in Wales), and Non-Domestic (Business) Rates. Non-Domestic rates are explained in more detail here - they're not devolved - but they are redistributed by the Welsh Government, again totalling around £1billion per annum. The Welsh Government funds unitary authorities via an agreed annual settlement, and unitary authorities are responsible for around £5billion of public spending in Wales.

2. Community Councils

Below unitary authorities are a tier of community/town/rural district councils. Like unitary authorities, community councillors are elected by first past the post in single or multi-member wards. There are around 8,000 community councillors in Wales, representing 736 community councils. AFAIK it's an unpaid role, though some community councils do hire employees (i.e a clerk, groundskeepers) and community councillors are eligible for some expenses for certain types of work.


Community councils can set a precept on Council Tax and have some measure of independence from unitary authorities. However, they don't control any "big ticket" items like social services or schools. In 2011, the Local Government Measure modified the role of community councils, but nothing significant appears to have come of that. The Local Democracy Bill also appears to be rather limp, but will (if passed) enable/require community councils to have a greater presence online.

Community councils act on issues of ultra-local importance like summer playschemes, grants to local bodies and charities, playgrounds and street furniture. Not every community has a community council though, and they're not a "statutory/permanent" body. Community councils have their own national body - One Voice Wales.

3. Associated Public Bodies

There are various bodies upon which local councillors, or other appointed/nominated individuals, sit as board members.
  • National Park Authorities – Oversee national parks, and have enhanced powers with regard planning and conservation.
  • Police & Crime Commissioners – Replaced Police Authorities in November 2012. A directly-elected role to oversee police budgets and strategy. Local councillors still sit on Police & Crime Panels.
  • Fire Service Authorities – Self-explanatory.
  • Local Health Boards & Community Health Councils – Oversee and manage the delivery of health services within a region. Wales has had seven since 2009, but used to have 22 based around unitary authorities. There are also three "national" health trusts (Wales Ambulance Trust, Public Health Wales and Velindre [Cancer specialist] Trust).
  • Local Service Boards – A tricky one to define. It could be best described as local authority, public, private and third sector collaboration.
  • Regional Transport Consortia – Wales has four. They set strategies for developing highways (not including trunk roads, like motorways, which are a Welsh Government responsibility), cycling/pedestrian facilities and public transport like buses and rail services.

4. The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA)

The WLGA, based in Cardiff, is an umbrella organisation that I suppose could be described as a "council for councillors and officers", or a lobby group similar to the BMA, CBI or FSB. They have various committees that discuss national and regional priorities for local government. They also produce their own reports and are a key consultee with regard any decisions the Welsh Government make on local government. They help oversee training for councillors, and host seminars for councillors and local government officers.

5. Public Services Ombudsman


The Public Services Ombudsman - based in Pencoed, Bridgend County - is the independent body/person responsible for looking into complaints made against public authorities, including local authorities. It also covers local councillors themselves and officers. One of their stated aims is to "put things right" where complaints are upheld, as well as "recognise good practice." Unfortunately, sometimes the findings of the Ombudsman are readily ignored, or seemingly no concrete action taken.


What do we want/expect from local authorities?
Should people earning the large salaries and with
decision-making  powers in local government
have a mandate from the electorate?
(Pic : South Wales Argus)
I can only speak for myself here. There are numerous buzzwords associated with this. I'm going to try and explain them - in plain English - as best as I can.

Transparency"Knowing everything that goes on in the council, when we want to, on our terms." This doesn't just mean recording council proceedings, but also producing minutes, reports and voting records in a timely manner. Local government can learn a lot from the National Assembly in that regard. It's a hit-and-miss situation in Wales.



At one end, you have the jobsworth regime of Carmarthenshire, while it's safe to say that most local authorities aren't as "open" and "transparent" as they like to say they are. If a council gets too many Freedom of Information requests it's probably a sign they're not very "transparent". Though there are times when excluding the public is warranted, I believe the justifications are abused too often. "Commercial sensitivity" is one.

Administrative Accountability"Knowing who's in charge of what and what their powers are." This doesn't just apply to local government, but the "unofficial" tiers of government - Local Health Boards, for example. The people making executive decisions should be known to the public and should be accountable to the electorate. It's very hard for members of the public to hold officers to account, as opposed to elected members. I doubt many people would be able to name their local government directors, and would struggle to name the cabinet members in charge of various departments. Which leads me into....


Democratic Accountability"Anyone with executive/decision-making power should be elected into that position." In short, I'm saying appointed chief executives/officer-led councils have to go and elected officials should have executive (decision-making) powers. They'll have a mandate from us as electors, and if we disagree with what they do, we can campaign against them, influence them or vote them out of office. We won't be waiting for votes of confidence or sackings. More on that in Parts III and IV.

Economies of Scale"Fewer councils, fewer councillors, fewer officers and fewer, bigger budgets." Many of the problems in Welsh public services aren't structural, but I believe the structures at national, even down to departmental level are causing significant administrative problems that ultimately impact front line services. Too many chiefs (committees, boards, public bodies themselves, managers and senior administrative staff), too few Indians (social workers) for example.

The Welsh Government are encouraging collaboration, but it's estimated savings in real monetary terms would be minimal. That approach could also cause political problems between two local authorities with differing policies too. It's local government reorganisation done on the cheap without the hassle of reorganisation itself. Kicking the can down the road, then? Over to you, Lesley.

Many local authorities seem over-governed. If New York City can make do with 51 councillors, surely Blaenau Gwent or Anglesey can make do with 20 or less? In terms of creating economies of scale, we're probably going to have to consider a return of two-tier authorities. More on that in Parts III & IV.

Direct Democracy "People should actively engage with lower tiers of government as a 'first port of call'." This is embedded in the culture of the US and Switzerland and I'd like to see this happen in Wales to foster political participation. It would probably have to be apolitical, but it might help take some of the pressure off legislators further up the food chain (AMs, MPs, MEPs) and give communities some sense of self-ownership, even self-respect. Part II is dedicated to this.

Competence & Integrity"Local government officials and councillors who are good at their job, and honest in their intentions." As I've said earlier, it's nigh on impossible to hold officers to account, while levels of scrutiny in Welsh local government – budgets aside - are awful.


There's an impression that, ward issues and referrals aside, councillors generally do what they're told by higher-ups, officers or more dominant "personalities". I'm convinced many local councillors – in all parties - are put up as paper candidates to make up the numbers and are then unexpectedly elected. Ultimately, this comes down to proper candidate vetting by political parties.

I also question how many council leaders, let alone councillors, got into their positions. In one or two local authorities it terrifies me. I think council cabinet members, or officers, acting as an "
éminence grise"  to council leaders is completely illegitimate and undermines local democracy.


Proportionality"Reflecting voting preferences fairly." The numbers of uncontested seats in Wales are quite shocking, as are the slim margins needed to retain a seat. If you wear the right rosette and pick the right seat you are (in some cases) quite literally there for life. There's a romanticism for "one person, one vote" as a justification for FPTP, but that issue can be resolved. More on this in Parts III and IV.

Dat's sick, blud! Jus' don't get
any ideas about takin' da old
fart's council seats, ya get me?
(Pic : Richmond Council)
More representative of the public at large"More women, professionals, ethnic minorities (in the three main cities), disabled and younger people in local government." There've been attempts to get the stereotypical gentlemen and ladies of a certain age to move on, but it doesn't appear to have worked. Some local authorities have better track records than others.

Youth Councils and student governments are valuable, but a bit of a joke. They come across as a sop to keep "da yoof" happy. Or, they don't provide future politicians with enough proper "rough and tumble" political experience. If young people want to be involved in politics, they should actually get into positions of influence – in my opinion that starts with more young councillors.

Council practices might also have to change to cast a wider net with regard potential/suitable candidates. More on this in Part VI.

Absolute/Parliamentary privilege
"Councillors should have the same right to freedom of speech as AMs or MPs have." There've been examples where councillors have been referred to the Ombudsman for speaking their mind. As long as they don't say anything untoward, personal and can back what they are saying up with evidence, I don't see what the problem is. Democracy requires politicians – at all levels - who can express themselves without fear of the executive or watchdogs. That should also extend to members of the public criticising council policy, regardless of the interpretation.

Uniformity in procedures, pay & conditions and constitutions"Council constitutions should be set nationally, not set on a county-by-county basis." Obviously policies, budgets and the number of councillors could/should be different based on local needs. Once again, you only have to look at Carmarthenshire, Caerphilly and Anglesey to see what the issue is.

Part II will look at the lowest tier of local government – community/neighbourhood level - proposing a form of direct democracy and revisiting Communities First and Leanne Wood's Greenprint.

1 comment:

  1. Great start - I look forward to the remaining parts with great interest.

    ReplyDelete