Response to Welsh Government White Paper

This is my response to the Welsh Government's White Paper Reforming Local Government: Power to Local People

I am writing to formally respond to your White Paper – Power to Local people and would like to start by congratulating you on adapting an old Liberal slogan for the title.

I am not proposing to answer every question in the White Paper, just those where I have something to add or where I am in disagreement with you. I will though largely follow the structure of the document for ease of reference.

In general the thrust of the paper is to be welcomed in that it spells out some basic liberal principles in how we can advance local democracy. However, there are a number of dissonant notes that appear to contradict that direction of travel which, I believe need to be addressed.

Chapter One – Power to Local People

The need to achieve more diverse and representative membership of local councils is something I strongly support. You are absolutely right to say that this is critical for the business of local government and the keystone of effective democracy. A representative council is more accountable, empowering and transparent and will deliver better services as a result.

Trying to socially engineer such an outcome through affirmative action or by forcing a greater turn-over of councillors however will, in my view fail as previous attempts have also failed. Training and confidence-building amongst those we wish to encourage to serve will have some impact but the best way to achieve a representative and more diverse council in my opinion is through the introduction of a proportional voting system such as STV, which has the additional benefit of retaining a councillor-community link.

Chapter Two – Balancing the Responsibilities of National and Local Government

After 15 years of devolution, a clear policy that sets out an updated division of responsibilities and powers between the Welsh Government and local authorities is long overdue. This is especially so given the pace at which devolution has started to develop once the Liberal Democrats entered a UK coalition government.

I agree that public service providers need to work together with providers of other services and the third sector to break down unnecessary barriers and to escape from traditional silos.

I also agree that because of its status as an accountable elected body, the local council has a clear leadership role in promoting change and in driving forward cross-boundary working.  I note that the Welsh Government wants this trend to continue, with some shared services being commissioned nationally or regionally for the whole of the public sector where this makes financial sense, and in principle I support this.

However, I do have concerns about the accountability of these arrangements and in particular arrangements to scrutinise them. I would expect that as you turn this policy intention into specific proposals that you will address these concerns. This also applies to the growth of City Regions, which are mentioned in your paper, though I know this issue is outside your remit.

I fully support the creation of a general power of competence for local authorities and some Community Councils to act in their communities’ financial interest to generate efficiencies and secure value for money outcomes. This is a long-overdue reform that will empower councils to work better in the interests of their local area.

I note your proposal to review the provisions of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 so as to allow local authorities in Wales to make decisions on how they deliver services, other than in prescribed circumstances. Again there needs to be accountability and scrutiny built into these arrangements but they should not just be confined to local government. 

There is a case I believe, to set up regional cross-cutting providers of back office functions for example, that encompasses local government, further education, higher education and the local health board. The Welsh Government should explore the potential for such arrangements and seek to remove any obstacles to them.

In terms of other powers, I agree with the WLGA that public health should become a responsibility of local government. I also believe that other powers could be given to local councils as part of the wider organisation you are proposing.  Devolution should not stop at Cardiff Bay.

Your argument that local authorities must first demonstrate effective exercise of their existing powers does not really stand up to scrutiny. That argument has been used consistently to try and prevent further devolution of powers to the Welsh Assembly for 15 years. What is good enough for us should be good enough for local government. If we believe in empowerment and subsidiarity then we should deliver it and not tie it down in caveats.

Finally, I agree with the proposal to repeal or amend specific bureaucratic burdens imposed by Local Government legislation.

Chapter Three – Renewing Democracy

In responding to this chapter I draw your attention again to my remarks regarding chapter one: the best way to achieve a representative and more diverse council in my opinion is through the introduction of a proportional voting system such as STV, which has the additional benefit of retaining a councillor-community link.

The fact that the vast majority of Councillors are white, male and over 50 is undisputable. However, I do not believe that the proposals in this chapter will make a substantial difference to that fact, whilst a number of your ideas are actively undemocratic in that they seek to subvert the will of the electorate.

I note your proposal to require candidates in Local Government elections to record their membership of a registered political party on their nomination form, whether or not they are standing on behalf of that political party. I note that this same proposal does not apply to Assembly elections, where there are also a consistent number of independent candidates.

This proposal however, appears to conflict with the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which contained a requirement that anybody identifying themselves with a registered political party would need to have the approval of that party’s designated nominating officer first. This was brought in to prevent confusion amongst the electorate. Your proposal is in danger of reintroducing that confusion.

I agree that local council elections should be moved to a five year term in line with Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. This will prevent clashes and allow voters to focus on the record of the body they are selecting.

Although I see the attraction of electing councils by thirds, this undermines that principle, could lead to clashes with UK, Welsh and European elections and undermine continuity. On balance I favour all-out elections for local government.

The proposal that a candidate for leader of the council should publish a written manifesto and present it orally to the council before election is an intriguing one. No doubt you will be adopting similar arrangements for the election of First Minister.  It makes sense that having presented that manifesto the leader should then report annually on progress but I would suggest that you need to tie that process more strongly into the scrutiny process, so rather than becoming an event it is on-going and accountable.

Again, I support the setting of objectives for each cabinet member, but it should not just be the Leader who holds them to account for delivery. That should be the job of a scrutiny committee as well.

The proposal for a separate Chief Executive corporate plan does pose some challenges in my view. I am not clear how this will be substantially different to the Leader’s manifesto and cabinet members’ objectives. Operational delivery of policy is essentially an administrative exercise. Accountability for the Chief Executive’s performance should in the first instance be to the Leader.

In my view the existence of a Leader’s manifesto and an operational plan with different ownerships could lead to a lack of clarity and confusion when it comes to accountability, especially if they are both to be presented to the Council rather than the executive. Can this corporate plan be properly separated from the Leader’s manifesto and scrutinised effectively by a committee? Does the existence of both documents not provide potential for buck-passing?

I support the creation of a development programme for new and existing Council leaders, for Councillors with the potential to become cabinet members and for leaders of the opposition who have a realistic chance of becoming Council leader in the future. What is not clear is who makes that assessment and what criteria will apply for entry onto this programme.

On the proposal that all elected members should be legally required to produce an annual report, I have some reservations. There is a danger that this will become a tick box exercise. Currently, the contents of these reports are effectively censored by the council who remove any political content, as publication on their web page will contravene their corporate duty to be impartial. That needs to be addressed if this proposal is to be meaningful. I would also suggest that Councillors are given a choice as to how they publish their report, be it through a newsletter to their constituents, in a newspaper or on their own website.

The proposal that there should be a new power for Standards Committees to consider cases where there are serious concerns that an elected member is failing to fulfil their duties satisfactorily strikes me as open to abuse.

I am not clear how this will work or what the role of the local electorate is in this process. It could be used as a political weapon to undermine a councillor who is doing a perfectly satisfactory job. It is my view that if this is to be taken forward then there would need to be clear guidelines and markers, so that the process is fully transparent and everybody knows where they stand.

I also take issue with the idea that local authorities must take responsibility for the poor performance of elected members and manage this internally. This strikes me as the triumph of managerialism over democracy.

Again this could be subject to abuse. Elected members are accountable to their voters not their peers. Where a leader or his/her cabinet has been appointed by the council then clearly their performance should be scrutinised by that body, but for any other councillor the final arbiter of their performance is the next election.

On the issue of diversty among elected members I would draw your attention to Chapter 30 of the book ‘Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box’ edited by Robert Crowley and Robert Ford. In that chapter Michael Thrasher points out that three quarters of local councillors are male, are white and that they have an average age of 58, with more than a quarter aged over 65.

However, he then cites the findings of the last four surveys of local election candidates conducted between 2010 and 2014, comparing first time political candidates with incumbent councillors.  

Characteristics of first-time candidates and incumbents (%)

 

First time candidate

Incumbent

Women

32

28

Under 35 years

26

6

Over 65 years

15

27

White

95

96

University Degree

56

54

Retired

22

42

Professional

51

51

Managers

27

33

He concludes that if every incumbent was replaced then a few more women might be elected; the proportion of women councillors would rise from the current 28% to 32% and a few more people from among minority ethnic groups might get elected but they would still be substantially under-represented. Just over 5% of new candidates are from minority ethnic groups, who make up 14% of the population in England and Wales.

He points out that although the average age of incumbent councillors is 58, the average new challenger is 48 and no spring chicken either. Even if every incumbent was voted out, one in seven councillors would be past the age of retirement and four in ten above 56 years of age.

In short, little would change except that the proportion that have retired from work would reduce from 42% to 22%. He concludes that the ‘reason that voters keep voting for unrepresentative councillors is because candidates are almost as unrepresentative as they are challenging.’

These findings undermine the proposal in the White Paper of imposing term limits on councillors and provides more pertinent and relevant research on the idea than the one quoted in the paper which relies on studies in the USA and in particular Michigan, where there is already a more diverse pool of candidates. Your claim that term limits have shown greater competition in elections and have seen a more diverse pool of candidates therefore, is simply untrue.

I suggest that there is already a healthy turnover of elected councillors in most local authority areas and that the real problem is retaining younger members, who often leave after the first or second term, or even mid-term to get better employment. This is certainly the case in Swansea where we have recently lost three young and capable councillors for that reason.

I would add in opposition to this proposal that it is undemocratic as it removes choice from the electors, who may be perfectly satisfied with their councillor and it also removes experienced hands from local government at a time of organisational upheaval and when that experience is needed to ensure continuity of service delivery. I am strongly opposed to this proposal.

I would though suggest that where they are presented with alternative candidates who are younger, more dynamic, female and/or from a minority ethnic community, voters can be receptive and vote them into office.

This process is clearly aided by having a proportional voting system but points to the solution being one of capacity building rather than the gerrymandering suggested by the White Paper. The proposal that devolved public service organisations be required to release employees to undertake duties as an elected member will also help.

I support the proposed duty on Leaders, Group Leaders and Chief Executives to ensure diversity is respected and would suggest that this provision could be strengthened by requiring Standards Committees to scrutinise and enforce it.

I also support the requirement for the Chief Executive to establish a Youth Council and invite the Welsh Government to complement this requirement by reestablishing an All-Wales Youth Council.

I support the objective of an overall reduction in the number of elected members in local authorities but would not support introducing recall of councillors as this could be subject to abuse but also would be so tied up with hurdles and caveats as to be virtually useless.

I am also opposed to the proposal to disqualify elected members in local government from serving as an Assembly Member. I would argue that there is no inherent conflict in an Assembly Member being a Principal Councillor. In fact the dual role may be mutually beneficial to the member and their electorate.

The expertise that a Councillor can bring to the role of Assembly Member and vice versa is invaluable and should not be lost.

Ultimately the decision as to whether to allow a dual role should belong to the electorate. However, I would add that in considering the disqualification rules it would be beneficial to Welsh democracy and the Assembly as a whole to make them more permissive rather than less.

We should not be looking for additional categories to exclude from candidacy but actively seeking to dismantle barriers either through removing categories or changing the way that the rules are enforced.

I am also opposed to the idea that elected members of local authorities should be disqualified from serving on community councils. Ultimately, this should also be a matter for the electorate. However, membership of a community council can be a good training ground to progress to become a Principal Councillor. It enables a person to build up experience and having Principal Councillors on a Town or Community Council allows for a mix of experience that ultimately enhances this voluntary role for others.

The suggestion that local authority officers, other than those holding politically restricted posts, should be entitled to stand for election to their own Authority is an interesting one. There would though need to be provision to avoid conflicts of interest once a candidacy becomes known.

Finally, the proposal to set a term limit for Chief Executives could lead to increased costs as this would need to be managed through short term contracts, which inevitably inflate wage levels.

It strikes me that the establishment of a Public Sector Appointments Commission that would develop a framework and process for evaluating and grading all senior roles in the new authorities is centralising and prescriptive. What would be useful however is an academy for senior officers and a set of qualifications that they could aim for.

Chapter Four – Connecting with Communities

I agree with the premise in this chapter that consultation is not the same as involving people routinely in how services are delivered. However, the mechanisms as to how this aspiration is put into practice should be developed at a local level and be appropriate to local circumstances not imposed from the centre.

Welsh local communities do not have the same needs and there is no one size fits all solution to empowerment and service delivery. In this regard it strikes me that the main role of Welsh Government in pursuing this aim is leadership and spreading best practice. The same principle should apply in the development of Area Boards.

On Community Councils I agree that they need to be reduced in number and that this review should be conducted by Local Authorities. I also agree that those who are deemed to be ‘competent’ should be able to take on more responsibilities but that this should be tethered to there being an adequate performance framework and the availability of sufficient information for members and others to be able to assess how well they are discharging those duties.

Chapter Five – Power to Local Communities

I agree that control over public services should be democratically led and that the public sector should remain as the primary deliverer in Wales.

I also support the community having first refusal of privately owned communal assets when they come up for sale and taking over the running of local public services when appropriate. To this regard I would urge the Welsh Government to commence the community right to bid provisions of the Localism Act 2011 in Wales.

Chapter Six – Governance and Improvement

I support the proposals in this chapter.

Chapter Seven – Performance in Local Government

I support the proposals in this chapter and in particular the establishment of a streamlined online complaints process to facilitate the processing and tracking of complaints. As well as providing an auditable trail and enabling a local authority to build up a comprehensive picture of issues with service delivery and governance this approach will also provide greater transparency for members of the public.

Chapter Eight - Strengthening the Role of Review

In principle I support the proposals in this chapter however I have reservations about the granting of voting rights to co-opted members of Scrutiny Committees. This has the potential to undermine the role of elected councillors as well as giving ruling groups the opportunity to pack scrutiny committees in their favour.

I have no problem with co-opted members adding their expertise to reviews but it is my view that the final report should be signed off by elected members only. In many cases this is the only role those backbench and opposition members have within a cabinet/scrutiny model and I do not believe it should be devalued by having them share it with co-opted members who do not have the same level of accountability to the electorate.

I fully support the introduction of a right for individuals and representative bodies to petition Scrutiny Committees on matters of Authority wide concern and for Scrutiny Committees to be required to consider the appropriateness of considering the matters raised by and respond to the petitioner.

However, I would not want the right to petition the Cabinet or Council nor their obligation to respond to petitioners to be diminished. There would need to be clear guidance as to what petition is considered by which body. This is especially so as it is often the Cabinet or Council making the decisions.

I fully support the need for regional scrutiny and for scrutiny to be applied to cross-sector bodies taking on council functions. This has been a major weakness of regional and partnership working and has led to poorer decision making.

A good example of this is the advice issued by the Regional Education Body which covers Bridgend in my region on absences in schools, which later proved to be incorrect and had to be withdrawn.  Those of us who were seeking to correct the position were frustrated for some time by the fact that this advice could not be easily scrutinised by the relevant local council scrutiny body.

Chapter Nine – Reforming Local Government Finance

I support the need to review the way that local government is funded both to reduce the gearing effect which is a feature of the current system and also to empower local authorities.

Allowing councils to keep an element of business rates will provide a greater incentive to improve economic development in their area as well as offering opportunities to regenerate areas using a Tax Increment Financing mechanism as is currently the case in some English cities.

A fundamental review of business rates to base it on land values rather than rental income will help many businesses and provide an incentive for land owners to develop their land and take part in regeneration schemes.

I do have concerns about the introduction of new or stronger mechanisms to ensure funding is used strategically and setting up clear links between funding and the delivery of national policy outcomes. It seems to me that this amounts to greater hypothecation, which is something the Welsh Government has been moving away from in recent years.

Such hypothecation will reduce local accountability and choice, remove flexibility for local authorities and consequently put pressure on other non-hypothecated services. It is my view that local authorities should set their own spending priorities and be accountable for them to their local electorate.

I am content for a fundamental review to take place of the current distribution mechanism to ensure it reflects the relative needs of the new local authorities. However, I think there is an inherent danger in basing distribution on the outcome of performance and improvement as it again implies more central control of local authorities and the undermining of local accountability. There are other mechanisms by which local authorities can be compelled to improve their performance, many outlined in this White Paper.

I hope that these comments are useful and I look forward to seeing the outcome of this consultation.


Showing 2 reactions

Clean up Neath Port Talbot Streets

Clean up Neath Port Talbot Streets

Sign our petition now

Peter Black's Blog

Peter Black's Blog

Read Peter's daily blog - opinions, comment, irreverence, videos and the occasional cat story