Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Local Reform for Local People

Welsh Local Government; a world of secret legalese code, unopposed
elections and jobs for life - though perhaps not for much longer.
(Pic : via Tumblr)

UPDATE : 06/02/15 - There's another take on this from someone who's had more than her fair share of run-ins with the dark side of Welsh local government - including some important points in the white paper I missed (shock, horror!) - and that's Carmarthenshire Planning.

As you might remember, Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), recently introduced the Local Government Bill to the National Assembly, in hope it'll kick start the stalling reorganisation of Welsh local government.

I also mentioned he was going to introduce a white paper this week, but I would only cover it "depending on what's included". I'll admit I expected it to be another deathly dull, buzzword-laden document that says a lot but proposes very little.

I'm pleased to say that's not the case. The white paper is more significant than anyone would've expected. There's a full version (pdf)....which is a deathly dull, buzzword-laden etc....and, I'm pleased to say, a "Plain English" version that's only a third of the length of the full document (pdf).

Though I doubt any of you want to plough through that, so that's my job, isn't it?

The Proposals

The reasoning for local government reform has been done to death, most of it is outlined in this post - so I won't cover it again. It's important to stress that all of the following is subject to consultation.
  • A Public Services Commission will be established to oversee the transfer and recruitment of staff to the new local authorities, as well as ensuring unified terms and conditions across local government.
  • Local authorities will be given a "general power of competence" so they have a clear legal footing (a bit like how powers are devolved to the Welsh Government and Assembly), and this will allow more powers to be "devolved" to councils in future.
  • Council Leaders should present a written statement of their goals at the start of their term of office, and they should set goals for each cabinet member. A duty will be placed on council leaders to ensure cabinets are representative of the local population.
  • Councillors could be limited to five terms in office (~25 years), while cabinet members and leaders could be limited to two terms (~10 years).
  • Chief Executives would become mandatory, but they'll be given a clear set of duties which their performance will be measured against. Failing chief executives can be dismissed by the council. They could be "term limited" too, and there could be more consistency on salaries (Fat Cats, Fatter Cheques) and number of senior managers – possibly including an Irish-style Appointments Commission (which means senior officers will be appointed independently of local authorities).
  • Areas boards would be established in the new local authorities to make sure the voices of local communities are heard. Community councils will be reviewed by 2022, and this could see a big reduction in their number. Community councils will also be "tested" to see if they provide a good service to communities – those that do may be given more powers, those that don't may be merged with larger neighbours.
  • Community groups should have a right to propose changes to local services. They'll also have a right to propose to take over the running of community assets (libraries, playing fields, community centres etc.). They could also have a right to first refusal on private properties (like pubs) which come onto the market.
  • The Welsh Government will have the power to intervene in local services if whistleblowers warn of failings, the local authority is seriously under-performing or if concerns are raised by councillors or the public.
  • Council and cabinet meetings must be broadcast live online. The public must have the right to give their views on any agenda item and to use social media in council meetings. Complaints procedures must be completely overhauled, and should be considered by the relevant audit committee.
  • The independence of scrutiny by councillors and audit committees must be protected, and the Welsh Government want to give people more opportunity to get committees to focus scrutiny on particular areas.
  • Finance of local government could, in future, be linked to performance (though this will be outlined in future white papers). The balance between what Welsh Government and local government raise to fund local services "will be looked at". It's been hinted in the last few years that councils could keep more of the money they raise in business rates, for example.

Minor points of interest :
  • All local authorities should be called "County Councils".
  • "Plain English/Cymraeg Clir" council constitutions to focus on "core values" and cut down on legalese.
  • A legal requirement for local councillors to publish annual reports as only half of councillors currently do so.
  • Independents will be required to declare party affiliations.
  • An overall reduction in the number of councillors (though no numbers are given).
  • Councils will be required to publish information on performance on a single website (like My Local School).
  • Local elections could be "phased" (where around a third of councillors are elected each and every year) or kept to fixed terms of five years.
  • The maximum permissible number of cabinet members could be reduced from 10.
  • There could be a power to recall councillors (Total Recall).
  • Local authority councillors may be barred from serving as community councillors, while Assembly Members will be barred from serving as local authority councillors (several do).

The Assembly Debate

There was a debate on the white paper yesterday in the National Assembly, so it gives us some idea of the initial political reaction.

The Minister's opening statement focused on change, calling for "activist councils", and councillors who act as "community champions". He described the reforms as a "new deal for local government" which recasts the relationship between local and Welsh governments, backed by the Future Generations Bill.

Shadow Local Government Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders (Con, Abercowny), broadly welcomed the proposals, describing them as "long overdue". However, she said following last week's confusion over reorganisation, there's a lack of trust/confidence in local government. Janet wanted assurances that appointments to the Public Service Commission would be open and transparent, not subject to Labour cronyism.

Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) commended the vision for the role of local government, which sets out its "profoundly important role". He asked how would the Welsh Government provide support to officers in achieving its ambitions?

The Minister responded by saying quality of leadership was critical and there may be a role for the Public Service Academy in developing leadership courses.

Plaid Cymru's local government spokesperson, Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr), welcomed the statement, saying it was "a shame it wasn't a year or two earlier". He said there was a need for more consistency between the highest and lowest paid, as well as payments to chief executives to be returning officers – which has been integrated into the chief executive's role in Swansea. He asked how term-limits for councillors are justified, but not likewise for AMs? Rhodri was also concerned that lower allowances would mean councils struggling to find members.

Leighton said he would like to explore pay ratios further as salaries are out of kilter with similarly-sized local authorities elsewhere in Great Britain. He sas pleased to be starting a debate on term limits, but term limits on AMs are dependent on having powers over electoral arrangements. On allowances, the Minister said they were not "over-generous" for councillors themselves, but were for cabinet members and leaders.

Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) described the proposals as a "further stage of devolution" and in particular supported provisions relating to co-ops and mutuals. He asked a slightly geeky question on ensuring consistency across several pieces of legislation, to which the Minister pointed to the Future Generations Bill as being "central to local government".

Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West), said the proposals had the potential to be "transformative", but was concerned some of the proposals were "control freakery". If the Minister were serious about empowering people and communities he should consider proportional representation.

Peter opposes term limits as he believes the loss of experienced councillors would be detrimental in a period of upheaval. He also questioned why term-limits for AMs and MPs are not being considered? As Peter is himself a local councillor and AM, he asked what other groups should be banned from standing? He also wanted to know more on community council reform.

Leighton said he didn't want to reduce the power of local authorities, and was actually suggesting fewer central targets. He repeated that he didn't have the power to stop MPs or Lords being councillors, and pointed out that there's a measure of hypocrisy in Peter's statement as internal Lib Dem positions include term limits. The Labour manifesto committed themselves against PR so they wouldn't introduce it, while he said the job of reforming community councils would be left to local authorities.

Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) welcomed the commitment to more diversity, saying councils should properly represent their communities, highlighting the low numbers of women and ethnic minority councillors. She asked how a diversity duty for council cabinets would be enforced?

The Minister said the public sector equality duty would put a responsibility on local authority leaders, and could be revamped to ensure that behaviours that discourage diversity (like holding meetings at inconvenient times) are changed.

Former leader of Swansea Council, Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East), said we all benefit from quality of service from councillors, and local authorities would welcome a "general power of competence". Mike said he was "amazed" how independent groups can exist in coalition with other parties (like Labour are in Carmarthenshire, Mike?), and the existence of "Independent independents" who don't belong to any group. In addition to asking another question on remuneration, he asked whether councillors elected to the Assembly would be allowed to serve their time out to save councils by-election costs?

Leighton said the Welsh Government's intention would be to allow sitting councillors elected to the Assembly to see out their council term but be barred from standing for re-election.

Good, but not quite great

These reforms may go some way to reverse the "pale, male and stale" stereotype
of local councils, but there's one big omission that could've made this truly transformative.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

Leighton Andrews' reputation as a "reformer" precedes him and he's living up to expectations.

In my usual elegant style, I'll say that bums across the top of local government will be going "five pence, ten pence". If these reforms were enacted a few years ago, the recent history of rogue authorities like Anglesey, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire could've been very different.

I can see the arguments for and against fixed terms for councillors and councils (though I prefer the four-year electoral cycle, five years is too long) – there's the usual informative take from Borthlas on that. I'd rather see mandatory retirement at the first election following a 70th or 75th birthday.

The "general power of competence" semi-addresses the question that hasn't been raised often enough in this debate : "What should local authorities do?" My concern would be that it will be too focused on current powers and won't fully consider giving local authorities extra powers.

There was one single omission that had to be in there to make this a great set of proposals (which the Electoral Reform Society have picked up on too) and that's a change in the local electoral system to proportional voting - whether that's single transferable vote (STV) or another system. There are too many uncontested elections, while the current system of multiple non-transferable vote (MNTV) has been described as "a contender for the worst electoral system in the world".

Why are Labour so keen to uphold this single manifesto commitment when they've broken so many others, I wonder? Not that I would ever accuse them of putting The Party's interests ahead of a properly functioning democracy.

It's right to say I'm cynical when it comes to public consultations but, if you're living in the Wild West in particular, this one might be worth taking part in. You don't need to fill out lengthy forms either as there's a shorter online survey available here. Responses have to be in by April 28th.


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