Saturday, 30 March 2013

Local Sovereignty VI - Federalism & Oversight

The case for Devolution/Federalism within Wales

I believe power should be as close to communities as possible – within reason - factoring in things like economies of scale. It would be hypocritical of me to support the devolution of more powers to the Assembly, without supporting devolution downwards too.

Some excessively top-down approaches taken by some Welsh ministers towards areas like education and health are wrong in my opinion. That's either through a panicked over eagerness to interfere and micromanage what should be local affairs, or an accountability vacuum where nobody is clear who's in charge of what or who's answerable to who.

Obviously, I don't consider the United Kingdom a "community" at all, and I only consider myself British in cultural terms, not my nationality. As far as I'm concerned the UK is a pointless middleman getting in between Wales – as a nation-state – and Europe as a loose confederation of 27 (28 from this summer) sovereign states working together at continental level.

But looking at examples around the world, there's definitely room for a looser collection of co-operating regions and communities within Wales without threatening national sovereignty or territorial integrity. Federalism is usually an option for nations that:
  • Are geographically large, or have thinly-spread populations.
  • Have a topography/transport network that prevents efficient travel across land.
  • Have strongly self-identifying "regions" or states.
  • Great regional disparity, or spread, in socio-economic terms.
  • Ethnically and/or linguistically diverse.

Except perhaps ethnic diversity, Wales ticks most of the boxes.

As more powers transfer to the Senedd, more powers could transfer to the provinces. Provinces could eventually evolve to include primary law making powers over areas "devolved to them". You wouldn't expect that much legislation to appear - probably a maximum of five or six Bills a term - but it would give regions and communities a significant arsenal to effect change at regional level.

Could North Wales have a different approach to health services than Gwent? Could Glamorgan completely restructure its school curriculum to suit its own needs? Could Dyfed Powys have the power to make new regulations on things like meat standards alone?

There would be obvious disadvantages, like increasing divergence in policy outline above. So what role would the Senedd play in such a situation?

The role of the Senedd

The Senedd should probably retain a very tight
leash on things - at least in the early days.
(Pic : Urban75)
Obviously, in a post-independence scenario, the Senedd would be taking on responsibilities currently reserved to Westminster like defence, welfare and foreign affairs.

In terms of local government, their role could be that of a hands-off overseer. Control over local government – as a power - should remain a "federal matter" in Cardiff. That would include funding, the format of local taxation, the election system as well as the creation and merger of new municipalities and provinces.

They would still have primacy. They could pass legislation preventing the above scenario of diverging regional policy from happening by ensuring a law applies across the whole of Wales. So the Senedd would be able to pass a law preventing any province from reintroducing prescription charges – for example - as long as the Senedd stumps up the cash to pay for it.

Or, equally, they could pass a law allowing the provinces to decide matters like that for themselves - delegated legislation - which I mentioned in Part IV. So there's flexibility there.

There would still, presumably, be a government minister with the responsibility for local government. Their biggest role would be to help set the annual settlement/block grant and help other ministers to determine what secondary legislation should be delegated to the provinces.

The Seneddwr would ensure that the settlement is fair. However, they wouldn't have to deal with any matters that could be dealt with by municipalities or provinces. They won't have to worry about things like the line-by-line accounting of health services. They'll only have to bring it up in the Senedd if they don't believe the provinces are doing a good enough job of it. So, their role would be more legislative, and they would – effectively – act as a second chamber to the provinces and municipalities.

Creating new provinces and municipalities

This would be decided at national level. The new province/municipality would need to meet the same requirements as any other with regard minimum councillors etc. So they would, ideally, need to have at least 50,000 residents within the new boundaries to become a municipality and significantly more to become a province.

The new municipality/province should probably be subject to local referendum approval in the municipalities/provinces affected by the change.

So, for example, if it were proposed to split Powys - as I outlined it - municipality into Montgomeryshire and Brecon & Radnor, it could have to be approved by electors in both, once all the arrangements for elections, council headquarters etc. had been set in place by the Welsh Government.

Local Government Commissioner

Has the time come for a Senedd-appointed, independent
Local Government Commissioner to draw together several powers?
(Pic : BBC Wales)
An independent Local Government Commissioner could be established, and appointed by the Senedd – similar to that of the Welsh Language Commissioner etc. - to replace the the local authority role of the Public Services Ombudsman.

They could have the power to :
  • Review code of conduct complaints regarding elected members and officials.
  • Handle complaints from members of the public and whistle-blowers relating to local government services that haven't been cleared up satisfactorily.
  • Help the Wales Audit Office audit the non-financial aspects of local government services (i.e governance & service delivery).
  • Review the effectiveness of primary local government legislation, provincial legislation and byelaws.
  • Provide an annual report to the Senedd.
You could probably fold in the role of the Local Government Boundary Commission too – setting the boundaries for municipal councils and provincial assemblies.


Changes on this scale would impact the likes of the WLGA. They would need to rethink their own structures to match the new one. I think they should probably drop all influence on policy, and let individual cantrefi, municipalities and provinces deal with matters relating to national policy on a government-to-government basis.

However, they could set up a "Mayors Association" under its umbrella to act as a national forum for mayors, a "Provincial Assembly Members Association" to act similarly for provincial AMs etc. They could also continue to provide training and support for elected members and local government officials. I think that sort of role could be expanded upon, perhaps involving universities too.

They could also form part of an arbitration services for disputes between varying local authorities, as well as help co-ordinate things like introducing secondary legislation in all provinces at the same time, or collaboration in service delivery.

Election Timetables

Should provincial elections serve as the most important
"mid term" elections in relation to the Senedd?
(Pic : South Wales Argus)
I'm in favour of fixed four year terms, not five as it seems the Conservatives and Lib Dems are. There would be five elections to consider – Senedd, European Parliament, Provincial Assemblies, Municipal Councils and Municipal mayors.

European Parliament elections take place every five years anyway, so it's hard to fit the others around it. Though if another election clashes with a European one, they should probably take place on the same day.

Provincial Assembly elections should take place half-way through a Senedd term, to act as the major "mid term election".

In terms of a six-year "cycle", you could look at:

Year 1 – European Parliament
Year 2 – Senedd
Year 3 – Municipal Councils & Mayors
Year 4 – Provincial Assemblies
Year 5 – No election (window for elected head of state - President or Tywysog(es))
Year 6 – Senedd & European Parliament (same day)

"Westminster" I hear you say. What is this "Westminster?"

National Standards

A Local Government Constitutional Charter

There could be a new template for constitutions and standing orders drawn up and negotiated nationally, and then approved at the first meeting of each new municipal council and provincial assembly.

This would include things relating to declaring interests, employment of relatives, the general rules regarding setting up committees, legal and financial arrangements and management structures. This would mean every council and province would have exactly the same rules as each other. Modifications to the constitution should be applied nationally – probably through negotiation - not on a council by council basis.

Transparency & Open Government

Broadcasting municipal & provincial sessions - Whole council, provincial assembly and committee meetings should be broadcast as standard, with either a full transcription or minutes provided promptly – perhaps within 7 days of a meeting.

Voting records – Voting should be recorded and results revealed in full, including who voted for what as well as abstentions.

Absolute privilege – Councillors and provincial AMs should have absolute privilege relating to anything they say in the chamber or a committee. Perhaps that should extend to any matter relating to their work - including social media and personal websites. That means they can't be sued for defamation under any circumstances. This currently only applies to the Assembly, courts & inquiries, certain public officials and Westminster. It should apply to local councils too.

In my opinion, it could even be extended to the public, or some sort of "public interest clause". Anything put out on public record – for example, modifications to council constitutions in relation to libel actions – should be allowed to be interpreted any way a member of the public wants it to be.

If someone believes that action to be corrupt, they should be able to say so as a qualified privilege under freedom of speech – subject to a right of reply - as a council endorsed that decision.

Modify "commercial sensitivity" – I can understand why things are kept off the record for this reason. However, selective redaction of names, addresses, company names and personal information could be used instead. Replacing company and supplier names with "Company A" for example. Anything involving the use of public funds should be made public as a matter of principle. It's the figures and reasoning behind decisions that matter, not who does it really.

Whistle blowing – This could be done via the Local Government Commissioner, as outlined above, to avoid involving senior council employees in the process to prevent possible harassment, job losses or persecution. It should be open to be used by both employees, elected members and concerned members of the public – dependant on some sort of evidence being provided. Identities of the people involved should be protected until any formal investigation begins. Malicious accusations probably should result in some sort of reprimand.

Other services

Local referenda – I've suggested municipalities and provinces should be able to hold local referenda on issues that fall within their jurisdiction. The problem is that a referendum can be as expensive to hold as an ordinary election. The decision to hold a referendum could be taken exclusively by the relevant legislature/mayor etc., or there could be a way for the public to raise signatures calling for a referendum on a specific issue. Perhaps that should be 10% of the electorate in a province, municipality etc.

Welsh language services – The provinces should operate bilingually as standard in the same way the Senedd does. At municipal level, I think it would be fair to have some leeway, some could even operate with Welsh as the first/working language – like Gwynedd does at the moment.

The real question is the cantrefi. You wouldn't expect full translation services, but the scenario could arise of someone – quite rightly – speaking in Welsh, with attendees or guests not understanding what they're saying.

I think this depends on where you are in Wales. A cantref in Y Fro might only/mainly use Welsh, while a cantref in Monmouthshire might not even translate a website. Again, there's probably room for flexibility, but clerks in areas with a sizable minority of Welsh-speakers (20%+) should probably be employed on the basis of being bilingual, providing ad lib translation when required.

"Fair use" in cantrefi summonses – As I mentioned in Part II, cantrefi could have the power to summons elected representatives to appear before them. There would need to be "fair use" guidelines. Seneddwr and MEPs should probably only be expected to turn up to perhaps one cantref meeting a month, or less, when there's a matter of particular importance discussed. Meanwhile, you would expect local councillors to attend as many as possible, with provincial AMs somewhere in between.

Cantrefi could also be expected to refrain from "badgering" politicians. If they say no, and write a statement instead, that should be good enough.

Management structures

Internal promotion and fast tracking – ....of management roles within local and provincial government. Talented civilian managers should come from within, not be appointed from the outside. Obviously, with directly-elected mayors there would be no point of going through the expense of hiring new chief executives every few years. We should, eventually, expect management-level staff in local government to have some sort of public administration qualification from a Welsh university, or to have gone through some kind of civil service academy. Those with these levels of experience could be fast-tracked into more senior positions.

"One department, one manager" - Local government gives the impression of being top heavy in terms on management-level personnel. You have departments headed by a director. That instantly splits into "service areas" – headed by another manager. That splits into various specialises areas – headed by another manager, supported by line managers. Each of them might be expected to have their own support and administration staffas well as team leaders.

I think this causes confusion about who's actually in charge of what. If some area of local government is important enough to have a director, then they should be the sole manager of that department, only supported by team leaders. Management is important, and good management is even more important. But would you choose one executive assistant director on a six-figure salary, or four newly-qualified social workers?

"Ban the Boss" – Back in 2010, Dr Paul Thomas from Glamorgan University worked with Blaenau Gwent Council's recycling, waste collection and mechanics teams for a BBC Wales documentary where he "got rid" of the managers.

I don't think we'd need to go that far, but is it such a ridiculous suggestion that workers might know more about their job, and might be able to take better working decisions than managers would?

It's ingrained in Welsh culture to want someone else to give the orders. That's what we're used to. It means that good suggestions on working practices might end up being ignored because "managers know better". That's why I would prefer more internal promotions in local government - especially getting front-line staff who show some initiative into management roles - rather than parachuting in "professional managers" who know about management, but perhaps very little about their department brief.

There's a clear difference between good and bad management, and I'm not saying get rid of all managers. You would still need some administrative oversight, and someone who can report to the mayors, committees, provincial governments etc. But those "middle management" roles in local government probably could be replaced with workers taking more decisions for themselves – including things like work schedules, some aspects of procurement and on the fly decision making.

What would each tier of local government represent?

A summary of the whole bloody thing.
It probably would've saved me a lot of time just to post this.
(Click to enlarge)
Cantrefi Self-reliant, autonomous communities. Cantrefi would encourage political participation through direct democracy. They should aim to give communities some sense of ownership and control over their own direction. The broader aim should be for communities to know – through participation in their cantref meetings – that they really can influence both politicians and public officials themselves, as well as help shape and direct some services that directly impact them at neighbourhood/community level.

MunicipalitiesLocal figureheads. This should be a first step onto the ladder for aspiring full-time politicians to allow them to gain political experience. Through directly-elected mayors, you not only can provide much greater visible accountability in the delivery of key local services, but also provide a much leaner management structure. Long-serving, competent mayors could become national leaders at some point, with enough of a track record behind them to perhaps improve delivery at national or provincial level as governors, party leaders or even prime ministers.

ProvincesEconomies of scale, and greater scrutiny in the delivery of key public services. Provinces would provide a democratic legitimacy instead of what are, currently, unelected boards by patronage and appointment. Provinces would take some of the pressure off national-level politicians through delegating powers downwards. Provincial politics would provide a thorough schooling in legislation, budgeting, scrutiny and managing big government departments for those who would one day like to be in the Senedd or European Parliament. It would hopefully improve the quality of legislators and ministers by giving them nowhere to hide, and encouraging them - and parties - to think strategically, not parochially.


I realise it's been a slog wading through all that. This was a brutal, energy-sapping undertaking even by my standards. My brain almost exploded at several points and, as you might expect, my four months of on-off work will inevitably be fruitless. Such is life, I'm used to that anyway. The reason posts like this are so long is so I can cover all the bases and keep contradictions to a minimum.

If my brain hasn't fried, and if I can be bothered to keep going, my next in-depth blogs will be on the press, media and broadcasting for this summer/autumn. Goody. I'll also have a two-part special (as a prelude to Welsh foreign policy in 2014 – shoot me now) in May or June.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to lie down.


  1. Thank you for taking the time and effort to produce this blog and covering this subject, I still prefer my template but its good to have a debate. I think we are coming from the same place on this.

    For me the concentration of power into any one set of hands is bad, which is why I want a decentralised Wales. I think the best model for Welsh federalism is that in the Federal Republic of Germany. The states all have their own constitutions and have sole legislative power in certain defined areas, shared legislative power in some more areas with the federal Assembly and wide conferred secondary legislative powers. As part of the balance of power the upper house of the Federal Parliament is made up of delegates of the governments of the states, this has important veto powers over concurrent legislative fields and over some elements of taxation that is split between the Federal and the State levels. If we are to have an upper house I would suggest we follow the German system and make it representatives of the provincial governments (or my regional commissions) as that will embed the federal nature of the constitution.

    The areas that we diverge are your Cantrefi, where I'd still retain the community councils, but have wider use of public meetings with maybe the annual one being policy making. I also dislike executive mayors, but could live with it. Id also have 5 rather than 4 provinces... but that is a minor issue.

    An excellent piece of work, would be very interested in hearing what others think.

  2. Thanks, Cibwr.

    I don't think there has been enough debate on this issue, other than various "statements" and ideas thrown around in the Western Mail and elsewhere. I honestly don't think the Welsh Government want to tackle something like this head on. As I found out - probably you too - the number of variables and factors you need to consider is overwhelming.

    We're either going to end up with a more formal collaboration structure, or we're simply going to get straightforward mergers. I think I've probably gone too far in the "radical" direction.

    I'll come back to how I think the Senedd and constitution-proper could work another time, though probably not for a while yet. If i'm still going.

    I don't think there's enough of a grounding for all-out federalism from the outset. I think people would have to get used to the idea. I think Spanish-style devolution would be the starting point, eventually evolving into a fully federal model after 10-20 years. That fully federal model could be based on Germany.

    Like you could live with mayors, I could live with community councils - albeit fewer of them (perhaps redrawn on the secondary school catchment areas I mooted for cantrefi) and smaller councils. Public participation could easily be fitted in around that.

    And in all honesty, although I appreciate you taking a keen interest in this, I strongly doubt many other people will.

  3. I agree which is a pity, we are drifting towards collaborative working, which from a democratic point of view is the worst of options, because you replace scrutiny with closed door deals between council leaders - its even worse than joint boards in that respect.