Sunday, 7 September 2014

Local Intelligence

After a string of recent crises at local government level, I
bet Welsh Labour now wish they didn't do quite so well in 2012....
(Pic : ITV Wales)

Welsh Labour had a right to be happy following the 2012 local elections. They had retaken pretty much all of the south Wales valleys local authorities and reclaimed the three south Wales cities. Following the humiliations of 2008 and 2009, they were back.

It's right to say that things haven't exactly gone to plan.

The first reason why is something beyond the control of local councillors regardless of party – austerity brought about by a combination of cuts to the Welsh block grant and subsequent Welsh Government cuts to local authority settlements. All those Labour councillors who put leaflets through the door promising the earth, or had ties to various local organisations reliant on council funds, are probably feeling pretty silly.

The second reason would be the Williams Commission. I doubt many candidates who sought re-election in 2012, or were standing for the first time, saw that coming. Around 400 seats are set to go, and most of them are going to be held by Labour by virtue of being the largest party.

When it sinks in what's going to happen, I'd imagine many Labour councillors will be fighting like cats in a bag to keep their seats, as previous attempts to get councillors to stand aside willingly have often ended in failure.

Then there are the specific local problems....

Crapital City

In-fighting, resignations, an influx of inexperienced first-term councillors, harsh cuts, poor leadership and a
damning report from the Wales Audit Office; Labour's governance of Cardiff has been a shambles.
(Pic : Wales Online)
Cardiff Labour have always given the impression of having a measure of independence from "Welsh" Labour, heavily influenced by controversial patrician mayoral figure, Cllr. Russell Goodway (Lab, Ely), and others like Cllr. Ralph Cook (Lab, Trowbridge).Since kicking out the Lib Dem-Plaid Cymru coalition, Labour couldn't make their mind up who was actually in charge, with Cllr. Heather Joyce (Lab, Llanrumney) being a surprise choice for Council Leader and – maybe unfairly – seen as a puppet of the "old guard".

The "new guard" of first-termer Labour councillors were perhaps seen as lobby fodder - except they weren't playing ball. Due to many unpopular decisions, a large (idealistic) group are clearly unhappy with the way the city's being run. Several councillors have resigned from the Labour group, or resigned as councillors full stop, prompting at least four by-elections, including : Luke Holland, Phil Hawkins, Cllr. Gretta Marshall and former council chair Cerys Furlong. The most recent high-profile resignation was Llandaf North councillor, Siobhan Corria, who's since accused Welsh Labour of institutional sexism.

In addition, there've been two management restructures. Between 2010-12, the previous administration reduced the senior management team to a Chief Executive and four senior managers. After Labour took control, they ditched the restructure and expanded that to a Chief Executive and ten senior managers (all earning top pay, as you would expect).

Further upheaval was caused when the Chief Executive resigned in June 2013. There was also an unsuccessful leadership challenge against Heather Joyce in May 2013, though she subsequently resigned as Council Leader in February this year and was replaced by newcomer Cllr. Phil Bale (Lab, Llanishen)

All these problems have filtered into service delivery, with the Wales Audit Office (WAO) publishing a critical Annual Improvement Report (pdf) last week which said :
  • There was a "fragmented leadership and management" which meant that improvements to key areas weren't made.
  • This was partially blamed on the political instability, made worse by the fact that many Labour councillors were elected for the first time. Limited training and support was offered to new cabinet members, while there were also few senior managers for them to oversee (I presume because Labour increased the number of senior managers without filling said vacancies quickly enough).
  • Cardiff Council "lacks effective means of delivery" despite identifying what it wants to achieve. This was blamed on poor communication between council departments and poor staff morale, with employees giving Cardiff Council a low rating as a "good employer".
  • There was inefficient decision-making and lack of transparency because of staff being unclear about their roles. Decision-making was slow, meeting agendas were too long-winded, while publication of details and decisions from committees was described as "weak".
  • It's said there's a high risk that savings for 2014-15 won't be met, and the WAO describes current service delivery methods as "unsustainable". Cardiff Council aren't managing their land and property assets well either.

Despite the damning verdict, Phil Bale's response to the report – where he accepted the criticisms unconditionally - impressed me. A mentally-weak council leader or chief executive – your Kevin Madges' and Mark James' of the world - would've shot the messenger. It doesn't mean anything will happen, but there's a glimmer of hope.

BBC Wales' Nick Servini reported that the WAO were going to recommend placing Cardiff Council in special measures, but decided against as the new management team, "were heading in the right direction".


With a lack of interest in, and vision for, the future of Swansea city centre,
Swansea Council's former leader lashed out at the only proposal on the table.
The fallout might've set in motion his resignation.
(Pic : South Wales Evening Post)

Things haven't been going much better down the M4, with Cllr. David Phillips (Lab, Castle) resigning as Swansea's Council Leader in the last week or so due to an ill-judged attempt to reorganise his cabinet. It ruffled enough feathers to – as some have speculated – prompt him to "jump before he was pushed". He's since said he wants to concentrate on the Swansea City Region.

What's still unclear, however, are the precise reasons why this blew up out of nowhere. It looks like it might've come down to the vision (or lack of) for the future development of Swansea.

Swansea's primarily served, retail wise, by what the Americans would call "strip malls" – large big floorspace retailers usually built on the outskirts of the main residential areas. Swansea has several : Parc Fforestfach, Morfa Shopping Park (next to Liberty Stadium) and Parc Tawe close to the city centre (as well as one near Llansamlet - thank you, Jac).

With all these big name retailers situated on the road network, you've got to wonder what people will go into Swansea city centre to spend their money on.

It appears many in Swansea want to try to emulate what Cardiff has done - and Newport are currently attempting - in trying to get a large retail development in the city centre itself, probably in the form of a major redevelopment of the Quadrant Centre. So far, the only things that have happened are a remodelling of the road network and demolition of St Davids and Oldway House for a surface car park.

However, another option has been put forward in the form of a £10million revamp of Parc Tawe. As an "out of centre" site, any further drawing of customers from the city centre is likely to seriously harm the long-term viability of some city centre shops.

The problem is that Parc Tawe is owned by property developers Hammerson, who controversially pulled out of a comprehensive £1billion redevelopment of Swansea city centre in October 2013. Swansea Council subsequently recommended a wide-range of restrictions on the Parc Tawe redevelopment to stop it competing with the retail offer in the city centre.

David Phillips then made a rather bone-headed sarcastic statement that simultaneously "congratulated" Hammerson, but slammed their neglect of the city centre. It's said some of the conditions could threaten the Parc Tawe revamp, but with nothing forthcoming regeneration-wise (a responsibility that's supposed to fall on the shoulders of the council), a Parc Tawe revamp is currently the best option on the table.

Clearly such an outburst – even if it was made in the right spirit – didn't go down too well and prompted the attempted "coup" and resignation.

Wrecks 'Em

A personality clash and policy disagreement led to the shock departure of
10 Labour councillors from Wrexham Council earlier this week.
(Pic : Wrexham Leader via BBC Wales)
The "good news" doesn't end there. On Wednesday (3rd September), ten councillors suddenly resigned from the co-ruling Labour group on Wrexham Council, up to and including the Council Leader, Neil Rogers. They've subsequently joined the Independent Democratic group, which is now the largest single group on the council with 20 members.

Judging by what's been said by Plaid Wrecsam, Blog Menai, Inside Out, National Left and gossip elsewhere, it appears to have been a largely predictable personality clash over the future of the Plas Madoc leisure centre that got out of control.

The contingent that left the Labour group opposed an extension of finances to Splash Community Trust – to the tune of £100,000 – to reopen the centre. The remaining 13 members of the Labour Group supported the move, prompting the split.

That seems a truly bizzare reason to leave a political group, and could well have thrown the "lifeline" available to the Community Trust out of reach.

You have to add to this the sacking of Cllr. Malcolm King (Lab, Wynnstay) from his post as executive member for finance after making allegations about the authority's child protection services – allegations Neil Rogers rejected. speculates that a visit from Carl Sargeant AM (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) to Wrexham recently, coincided with a request/order from Welsh Labour HQ that Cllr. King be reinstated.

Independents can now govern Wrexham alone if the two separate groups come to an agreement. It's doubly embarrassing as it's happened in the constituency of the Local Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham).

Everywhere Else

Bridgend, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Neath Port Talbot local authorities are strongly Labour and remain politically stable in the absense of any sizable, organised opposition (albeit a large Plaid Cymru presence in NPT and RCT).

Despite this, they're screwing up in their own small ways – take a look at how BCBC are approaching Porthcawl's regeneration, RCT's approach to budget cuts and how NPT handle opencast mining. All this is before mentioning Carmarthenshire, which stands apart as a confederacy of dunces.

So in one swoop Labour are set to lose their grip on the second largest local authority in north Wales, and are seemingly all over the place in the south. Just wait until the Williams Commission mergers kick into gear. Caerphilly  – another Labour-controlled authority - are already making grumbling noises, as are some non-Labour authorities.

Local authorities should be allowed to make their own mistakes – that's why we have local government in the first place. But there's a clear trend here, and aside from "cuts", "Labour" are the other causal factor.

The Solution?

(Pic : Scottish Government)
Proportional representation at local government level.

Multiple non-transferable vote is a gift to any party that heads up a one-party dominant system. However, some Labour councillors are so bad that you could deduce that the voting system is actually harming the party, as they did a little too well for their own good in 2012.

Because our councils are disproportionately large, Labour want to win seats for the sake of winning seats to get them over the line and take overall control of councils. Realistically, in most local authorities they're the only party in a position to be able to do that. Unfortunately for them, they haven't got the right standard of candidate to fill those seats and do a good job.

They're putting forward candidates who may well understand how to play "the politics game", but don't understand the areas they represent – a skill you could call "local intelligence" if you want. That could be because they haven't lived in the area long enough, or it could be that they simply don't "get" their ward because they only ever see a few sides of it or only see what they want to see.
Jac o' the North  puts that a different way.

"Local intelligence" is a more important attribute for a local councillor compared to representatives higher up the food chain because the ward is everything. A good local councillor doesn't concern themselves with national issues, their own personal image or ladder climbing.

It underlines what I said a few weeks ago that Welsh Labour have serious talent problems. For the sake of crushing majorities, they're returning too many paper candidates who either have loftier ambitions than the party gave them credit for (or don't like being told what to do), can't cope with the role in the face of austerity or – to be frank – just aren't cut out for it (i.e. not turning up to meetings, inarticulate, ill-disciplined, unable to scrutinise properly, don't understand jargon).

These are likely to be the strategists, AMs and MPs of the future so we should all be worried. It also, to a certain extent, underlines how bad the opposition parties are at fighting local elections and how little the general public understands and follows local politics.

Labour are fortunate that nobody cares enough. Despite the bad press in Cardiff they've won every by-election convincingly, while Swansea is set to have a smooth transition to a new leader. But these  shenanigans have an expense – whether that's bad news stories, private in-fighting or voter fatigue. An atmosphere of incompetence and denial usually ends up becoming a reality of incompetence - as we've seen in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire.

We need fewer, higher-quality councillors. The way to get that is to change the electoral system so parties have to think very, very carefully about the quality of the people they put forward. They need to stop filling our council halls with gumps who have stupendous majorities in tiny wards (or are even elected unopposed) but who couldn't organise a piss up in a brewery – a description that currently fits Welsh Labour and organised Independent groups in Wales to a tee.

After the chaos at the end of the last Assembly year, I presume the Welsh Government were hoping the new Assembly year was going to draw a line under everything. This would be boosted by the feel good factor of the NATO summit (which appears to have annoyed a sizable chunk of the world's press - well done) and the Commonwealth Games athlete reception next week....


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