Thursday, 21 March 2013

Local Sovereignty II - The Community

The debate on local government reforms in Wales is usually focused
on the unitary authorities. What about communities and neighbourhoods?
(Pic : BBC Wales)

I'll now look at the lowest tier of governance – communities and neighbourhoods – which has been conveniently forgotten in this debate.

If I'm completely honest, this is the part I'm most enthused about, but that doesn't mean I've neglected the rest of this.

As mentioned in Part I, Wales has around 736 community councils and 8,000 community councillors. But community governance is more than that. It includes some aspects of policing, planning, regeneration and in future could encompass things like the environment and energy.

Community Governance in Modern Wales

PACT is an example of an unofficial tier of local government,
focused on community safety and building a relationship
between police and communities.
(Pic : Merthyr Tydfil Community Safety Partnership)
There are several formal and informal groups and bodies that help govern at a neighbourhood or community level in Wales.

Town/Community Councils – The formal layer of representative democracy at community level, with some limited political responsibilities and spending powers. Community councillors are elected via first past the post, usually at the same time as local authority councillors.

Police and Communities Together (PACT) Partnerships between community policing teams and local communities. Meetings, usually monthly, are held to help the police to determine policing priorities within council wards.

Neighbourhood Watch – Neighbours looking out for each other by increased security, promoting a "community spirit" and helping police identify crime trends.

Communities First Partnerships/Clusters – As mentioned in detail before, a Welsh Government-led initiative to regenerate Wales' more deprived council wards through partnership between specialist teams, local authorities and the communities themselves.

Civic Trusts/Societies
– Voluntary organisations that provide input into planning, design and conservation within a community.

School Governors - This could count as "local" I suppose, as ultimately they set strategic direction for individual schools. I'm not including them in this though as their powers include things like exclusions which shouldn't really be up for public scrutiny.

Student/Youth Councils and Student Unions - These count if you include individual universities, schools or colleges as communities. Again, I'm not really including things like students unions for obvious reasons, but I do have suggestions for youth councils. As I pointed out last time, they're not really as influential or significant as I'd like them to be.

Residents/Neighbourhood/Tenants Associations – Informal groups that liaise with housing associations, community councils, police etc. and address hyper-local issues, even down to street or building level. Sometimes specific actions groups may be set up to fight/support a single issue or proposal.

Why does this need to change?

Community Councils are ineffectual
– It's unclear what community councils do. It's also hit and miss depending on the council itself. Some are very active, others don't seem to do anything at all. There's nothing wrong with community councillors themselves though. They're in it for the right reasons – a sense of civic duty. But I would like to see everyone possess that. The trouble is coming up with ways to encourage people to come forward.

There are too many overlapping authorities
– I don't think the list above is as extensive as it could be. Ideally, all of these local and hyper local responsibilities would be wrapped up in a single, clearly identifiable body that the whole community would know to turn to, and actively engage with, on matters of community importance.

It disengages people from the political process – This tier of government should be many people's first port of call if there's a local issue that needs addressing, but it's not.

I think most people would go straight to their local councillor, AM or MP instead of their community councillor. Communities should have greater sway – if not necessarily power – over decisions made on their behalf further up the ladder.

I don't think a "someone else will sort it out" attitude is good for democracy or community self-respect. You need to, somehow, get people actively involved in politics. Perhaps one way to do that – no offence to any reading this – is to get rid of the politicians. By that I mean reduce them to a background role at this level, not some revolutionary anti-politics agenda. You'll see what I mean in a minute.

Communities First & The Greenprint

Although Leanne's Greenprint was only a consultation,
could some of its proposals be expanded on and form the
bedrock for a new type of lowest-tier governance?
(Pic : Leanne Wood Blog)
Aside from community councils, Communities First is probably the most significant neighbourhood/community programme in Wales. As I've covered before, one of the main problems with it is that it doesn't appear to have made a significant impact in many of its main aims to reduce deprivation. It's also very "top down", with leadership by appointed "experts".

In my opinion, that approach does little to genuinely empower communities, and maintains a tight local or national government leash on things. That could be because politicians and local government officers might be sceptical about communities' ability to run certain things for themselves because they don't have the prerequisite skills or experience.

Prior to becoming Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood produced The Greenprint for The Valleys, which was a consultation document on a new co-operative and green economic approach in the south Wales Valleys. One of the key points raised, relevant to this blog, is that the Welsh Government should "back off" and that communities themselves should restore self-confidence and self-reliance through grass-roots, community-led action.

Leanne cited a "green social network" to "maximise participation"; with elected boards to oversee and drive forward projects like co-operative energy schemes. She also proposed "community hubs" in disused buildings to provide various services. Some communities might already have them in the form of community centres that are run by volunteers.

But what if you took that principle, threw in existing Communities First functions, mixed it with direct democracy and expanded the mandate?

What reforms could be enacted?

The community councillors of the future?
(Pic :
You could just simply delegate functions of local authorities down to existing community councils – parks & leisure for instance. I don't think that would work though. Community councils don't cover all of Wales, there are too many of them to create a sense of scale and parties noticeably struggle to recruit candidates to stand for the "less glamorous" (aka unpaid), and effectively powerless, community council seats. That's probably why you often see local authority councillors "double jobbing" at this level in my opinion.

What I think should happen at community level is a shift from a representative form of democracy - where you elect representatives to act on your behalf (community councillors) to a direct form of democracy - where decisions and motions are voted on by everyone in attendance at a formal meeting.

I'm proposing that community councils, as we know them, be scrapped. However, you – quite literally – would become a community councillor as long as you turn up. Congratulations.

You might think what I'm suggesting is a form of anarchism. I don't know. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't.

However, what I'm going to outline could fall under the definitions of "participism" – an emerging libertarian socialist philosophy which includes participatory economics and participatory politics.

Examples of direct democracy at community level

United States - Town meetings Some US states draw people from within a community to discuss issues of local importance. Sometimes there are votes to approve local matters by every registered voter in attendance. They're usually officiated by a Town Clerk who takes minutes and moderates the debate and votes.

Switzerland – Landsgemeinde (Cantonal Assemblies)
- Used in two Swiss confederal cantons (it used to be more) where any registered voter who turns up to a public meeting has a vote to approve legislation and expenditure by the cantonal legislature. Anyone can "take the floor" and criticise or support any proposal. The meetings are usually open air and held annually. Voting is usually taken by a simple raising of hands. The Swiss, nationally, also have a culture where referenda and citizen-led initiatives hold great sway.

And some people still maintain that the Additional Member System
is too complicated. This is what the Swiss have to deal with. Yes, each
one of those numbered items is a ballot or referendum info leaflet.
(Pic : via Wikipedia)

Basque Country (historic) – Elizate – Family heads within a church parish would make decisions for the local community at the church door (Elizate means "church door" in Basque). They were chaired by the equivalent of a clerk. They eventually became the current municipalities and neighbourhood community councils, switching to representative democracy.

If there were a Welsh set up along these lines, for the sake of argument I'm going to call them "Cantref/Cantrefi" – which roughly translates as "hundred settlements" and would be a land division between a parish and a local authority/county.

How many of them should there be?

A map of every single council ward in Wales.
Far too many to enable cantrefi based at a ward level?
(Click to enlarge)
You have to consider several factors, most importantly – maintaining a level of interest and ensuring enough people would actually bother to turn up at meetings ("interested people"). There are several options to determine this:

Ward level – Each existing council ward would become its own cantref. This would bring a level of democracy much closer to individual neighbourhoods, but there might be too many cantrefi to create scale, whilst smaller cantrefi could become dominated by big personalities. I don't think this would work.

Existing Community Council boundaries – This would make things easier, but the only problem is that community councils don't cover all of Wales currently. Cardiff only has six (AFAIK) community councils for example.

Minimum population
– Each cantref would have to meet a set minimum population to ensure a number of interested people. The trouble is where would you draw the line? Would it be 5,000? 10,000?

Settlement based – Each definable settlement would become its own cantref. So every town and village would stand alone, encompassing outerlying rural areas where applicable. However, there would be massive variation in sizes. Some villages might only have 300 people, while a cantref covering a town like Barry, for example, might have more then 50,000. I doubt it would work in practice.

I'd prefer minimum population mixed with a settlement-based approach.

Using Bridgend as an example, and citing the Greenprint's "community building per 10,000 people" you would expect Bridgend County (as it is) to have 13 or 14 cantrefi, and Wales as a whole to have around 300. That compares to 700 community councils currently. For larger urban local authorities – Cardiff, Newport, Swansea – you could increase the minimum population to 20-30,000 as they're more densely populated.

Picture how this could be arranged in your
own local authorities yourselves. I'm not that
much of a lost cause!
(Click to enlarge)
Here's a map of what Cantrefi along these lines in Bridgend could look like. Bridgend County currently has 20 Town & Community Councils – that's been reduced to 12 Cantrefi with an average/mean population of 11,598.

You can think of your own way to divide up your own local authorities along similar lines.

So Brackla, for instance, would be large enough by itself (~12,000 people) to sustain a cantref

I've also "future proofed" the likes of Coity Higher due to the Parc Derwen development, which will add at least 3,000 residents.
Other wards might have to merge to create a sense of scale and ensure a certain number of attendees at meetings.

Some of those mergers are natural or already pre-existing (Garw & Ogmore Valleys for instance). Other might seem rather artificial.

Smaller, rural wards have been merged with larger town councils to create larger cantrefi in definable "communities". For example; Pyle, Cornelly and Cefn Cribwr roughly corresponds with Cynffig Comprehensive's catchment area, so I've merged them to a single "Cynffig" cantref.
You could argue that what I'm proposing is reducing local democracy by centralising community councils and removing community councillors. I don't think it's the numbers that matter – it's how they operate and how people interact with them. You might lose a community council with 10 elected councillors, but a cantrefi meeting could draw 50 people.

Where could they be based?

Closed/abandoned churches, like All Saints Church in
Maerdy, would be a perfect place to base cantrefi out of where
pre-existing facilities aren't available.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
As noted earlier, the Greenprint moots a "single community building per 10,000 people". That could be an old building brought into use (i.e an abandoned church or factory), a school hall, a library or existing town halls and community centres.

They would need to accessible to all and, ideally, situated close to public transport routes. Meetings could also be moved around in larger, sparsely populated cantrefi. I don't think there needs to be a single "base" really.

Personally, I think disused churches would be perfect. The seating arrangements have a "deliberative assembly" feel - requiring minimal modifications - and they usually have a raised platform at the front for speakers, guests, clerks etc.

What powers could they have?
Should communities - via the cantrefi - take collective
ownership and help maintain and sustain projects
like Dowlais Engine House in Merthyr?
(Pic : Dowlais Engine House Flickr)
Act as an agent on behalf of a local authority – This is an existing community council function.They could agree to take on responsibilities on behalf of local authorities – similar to public toilets in Carmarthenshire recently - in exchange for partial funding and political control. It's not always in their best interests to do this so though.

Community safety
– Existing PACT and Neighbourhood Watch functions. Meetings would be an opportunity to raise and debate issues surrounding local crime and work with police to come up with solutions. It shouldn't just be crime, but also road safety – things like extra crossing patrols, crossing facilities etc. Perhaps it could even include things like fire safety awareness or public information on things like the current measles outbreak.

Community enterprise and regeneration – The political/administrative side of the Greenprint, Communities First and general economic development. Cantrefi could run community-facing businesses via a co-operative model – local stores, pharmacies, entertainment venues, green energy schemes. They could appoint/approve people to run these ventures on behalf of the community. There would be risks and rewards by doing so.

Community institutions – Related to the above. This could include supporting and running local sports clubs (or sports facilities) and, unfortunately, things like food banks. It could include helping to organise reactions to civil emergencies – for example, acting as a mustering point within a community to try to find a missing child. This could be expanded to include some allied community-based health care and social services like counselling and mentorship, or even child care.

Organise and help fund community events – Local litter picks, fairs, workshops, charity events, arts activities, summer playschemes, perhaps it should include allotments.

Local heritage & conservation
– Existing civic trust functions. But cantrefi could - with the right levels of income - commission conservation work themselves or take over monuments etc. perhaps in partnership with local authorities or bodies like Cadw.

Statutory consultation for planning applicationsVote to support or oppose planning applications. Whether that should include domestic planning applications is up for debate. Elected representatives would have to take note of any decisions, but they wouldn't be bound by them. They would, however, need to remember how that would look to the electorate. Cantrefi should also have an input into drawing up Section 106 agreements to get benefits for the community in exchange for supporting "big" planning applications.

Now what if these were opposed, not by protestors, but
by 8 or 9 cantrefi and several thousand people using
direct democracy? What if they had enough clout to
get funds or benefits for their communities in exchange
for support?
(Pic : BBC Wales)

Summons elected representatives (councillor, AMs etc.) – There would need to be national "fair use guidelines" to avoid taking the mick (Part VI). Elected representatives should have a legal right to attend meetings and a right to reply. If an elected representative can't attend, they should be expected to make a written statement on issues raised. I imagine local councillors (Part III) would attend regularly anyway, but it could also become a replacement for traditional surgeries, perhaps making AMs diaries a little less cluttered.

Debate and approve motions (by majority vote) - Motions could be anything the body decides - from asking the local authority to clean up dog mess to debating foreign policy. Believe it or not, even if I'm pretty introverted myself I don't like the idea of all political debate occurring on screens. People should be actively involved - face to face - to give them a sense they can influence matters directly through reasoned argument, collective action and debate.

erhaps political debate can become more civilised too, and politicians themselves wouldn't feel so/give the impression of being isolated from the public. Members of the public (including me) wouldn't get away with
Wales Online style "commentary" if they had no choice but to say things to an AM's face.

It'll might also give politicians higher up the food chain a better idea of public opinion, as well as providing much more "clout" to things like petitions if a whole community can come together and decide things democratically. This is the level where most budding politicians should start their careers - regardless of how old they are - that's why I've got an interesting inclusion further down.

How could they work?   


Officials of the cantrefi would sit on some sort of "front bench" the front. You can probably picture what I mean.

Clerk – The head administrator. Chairs and moderates debates, takes minutes, maintains communications etc. Clerks could be appointed by the local authority (Part III) on a part-time paid basis for a set period (as many community councils currently do). They can't vote and would need to be impartial – including rescinding and declaring any sort of political affiliation or interest.

Assistant Clerk – A member of the body who....assists the clerk. The clerk would decide how many were needed. They can't vote either, but could help count and record votes, take attendances etc. Assistants can be assigned temporarily, or act as acting clerk in case of absence.

Treasurer – Deals with finances (i.e ownership of assets, applying for grants). This should be someone with an accounting qualification, or an accountancy firm appointed to run finances on behalf of the cantref. They don't need to attend, but would need to provide information to auditors etc. as well as an annual report.

Elected Representatives
– Local Councillors, Mayors, AMs, MEPs etc (Parts III, IV). As noted earlier, they could have a legal right to attend cantrefi meetings and right to reply. They can't vote, but their role should be to inform attendees what governments/parties at varying levels are trying to do, as well as listen to concerns. They could also play an active role in debates. So it could be a hybrid of traditional surgeries and a more civilised version of Question Time.

– Other officials invited on a regular or one-off basis. This could include local government officers, planning experts, community policing teams etc. They would provide the attendees with specialist information or - like elected representatives - take public concerns on board and try to act on them.

With modern technology it should be easy
to arrange and inform people of meetings.

I'll be dealing with this in more detail in Part V, however – on paper – the cantrefi could continue to raise a Council Tax precept. They would also, presumably, be able to apply for national and local authority grants. If they followed the Greenprint and owned community facilities, then that might also generate a steady income stream. The spending of that money would then be decided via public meetings.

I do think the democratic functions are more important than funding. Cantrefi should guide spending by putting collective pressure on higher-ups - by telling them what they would like to see - rather than spend money themselves. It's much harder to ignore a room full of people who've voted fairly for or against something than a single petitioner.


It would be up to the clerk when and where meetings are held, but they should grant minimum notice  (14-28 days perhaps). There should be a legal minimum of one meeting a month, and meetings could be "staggered" in adjacent cantrefi to to prevent clashes.

I imagine most meetings would be held on weekday evenings or at the weekend. Notices could be sent electronically (via Facebook, social networking etc.), local press or by word of mouth. Similarly postponements.

The clerk would be expected to use common sense when choosing venues. For example, if they were to debate a controversial planning application like a wind farm, you would expect the meeting to be held in a large hall rather than a bus shelter. If, for whatever reason, there needs to be a limit on attendee numbers (i.e venue capacity) then it should be on a first come, first served basis.


Meetings could be conducted by simplified Rules of Order. Officials would give short presentations or statements of opinion (crime figures, planning application details, Assembly/local authority business). The clerk or assistant would read written statements if required.

Meetings could be conducted via less formal and
simplified rules of order.
(Pic : Wikipedia)

The body/attendees would then ask questions or raise issues for officials to note (specific crime problems etc.).

The clerk would recognise and grant people the floor, but could also determine time limits for speaking on a case-by-case basis – for example, debates on particularly controversial planning applications may require a time limit to allow as many people to speak as possible. It would also prevent "filibusters".

I don't think there's a need to broadcast meetings like these, but it's fairly easy to set up webcasts and podcasts nowadays. You would expect, even demand, some sort of online presence to keep people informed, with minutes, vote outcomes and other relevant information
provided as standard.

Everyone should be expected to act civilly and courteously – attendees and officials alike. However, I believe it's less likely people will say inflammatory things in person than online. The clerk should have the power to ask people to leave of they're being disruptive, but nobody can be permanently banned from future meetings.

Meetings would presumably last for however long they need to, but should be kept reasonable. 30-90 minutes would be my guess.


Although meetings would likely address mostly local issues,
there should be no limits on motions that can be debated.
(Pic : The Guardian)
People could propose motions to debate electronically or in writing. All of these requests will need to be noted and published, but the clerk decides whether to grant a request to debate, as well as scheduling them.

Some motions would be automatically included – statutory planning application consultations, issues to do with finance etc.

As said earlier, motions could cover absolutely anything. There would be a debate, with contributions from officials too if they wanted. Then there would be a vote in favour (to approve the motion) or against (to reject it) – without amendments – meaning motions would need to be carefully worded.

The decision would then be noted and publicised by the clerk for the public/press/politicians to note.

For example, if there were a specifically contentious national issue - on the scale of NHS reorganisations or the Iraq War - someone in every cantrefi could propose a motion to be debated at the same time.

Imagine the headlines and political consequences if every/a vast majority of cantrefi endorsed something criticising government policy. Would that, alone, be enough to influence national debate?

Direct Democracy - How could it work in practice?

For the sake of brevity, voting should probably be done by a simple show of hands. If it looks like there's an even split, or if the matter voted on is controversial, the clerk can ask for a formal count, with their assistant physically counting votes.
  • Residency requirement – Anyone voting would need to be permanently resident in the cantref. I think the best way of dealing with this is for everyone to register their address with the clerk and be sent a two-sided polling card (green in favour, red against), which can be kept and used as long as they're living in the cantref.
  • No minimum voting ageAnyone in attendance can vote or apply to vote. This would allow children and teenagers to have a say on things like youth facilities, playgrounds, skateparks and playing fields. It could also be a much more influential replacement for youth councils.
  • No proxy voters – Nobody can vote on anyone else's behalf, preventing the above being abused. You have to be in attendance to vote.
I think using direct democracy would encourage a high turnouts amongst the public, but I would imagine most meetings would have 50-75 people in attendance, rising to several hundred if anything controversial is discussed.

Part III will look at the next step up – municipalities - including directly-elected mayors, changes to how local councils would function, how local councillors could scrutinise decisions and elections.


  1. A lot to like here. In rural Wales, a logical basis for a cantref would be the local town with a secondary school and its catchment area/smaller communities with feeder primary schools. To take matters further, it may be possible that such a school cluster/federation could become to a degree locally managed or even owned albeit within a wider regional framework (as has been suggested by the Wales Co-operative Centre). The same could also apply to the smallest units of the NHS such as local GP clusters. Perhaps we need to be thinking in holistic terms, in terms of clusters/nests of institutions, rather than in terms of discrete 'tiers' of self-government?

  2. Thanks, Anon.

    I come back to catchment areas in Part III, but I agree that it's probably the best way to base cantrefi on in rural areas.

    Coincidentally, I was going to put "school governance" as a possible power at community level. My fear would be that it would result in too much work for a cantref.

    You would end up needing to create committees and sub committees to oversee something as specific as school governance and it might overburden communities. Cantrefi could become dominated by big personalities and de-facto politicians, albeit unelected. I want to see the culture of "rule by committee" annihilated in Wales.

    I think what you/Wales Co-op centre suggest is a natural progression of what I've set out above though. I don't think there's anything wrong with the nests and clusters for services like schools, GPs, libraries etc. controlled locally.

    I think the public would have to get used to the idea of controlling things like that through direct democracy first of all. That's probably why it's have to start with "smaller" things like local shops, sports clubs and community facilities.

  3. Interesting ideas, though I don't agree fully, I still see the need for elected councils at a grass roots level. The school catchment area is a good one, but the building blocks should be the communities as currently defined. Yes have public meetings at least annually where matters are decided (as current community meetings where community councils don't exist). There is also some scope in some rural areas in uniting a rural hinterland with a core village/urban centre but again I'd still like communities to have a council.

  4. That's fine, Cibwr. You could certainly rearrange community councils along the lines of "catchment areas" and keep smaller elected bodies. I just think that we will need to move away from seeing decisions as done on the whim of elected or appointed experts. It's too high-handed.

    The easiest, and less complicated, way to change that is by allowing communities to have more direct control over things that immediately affect them (which is what community councils are supposed to do). If people can see that they can turn up at a meeting, and manage to convince a room full of people to support their view, and actually influence something/someone, then it might make political engagement more attractive than it is currently.