Today, Public Services Minister Leighton Andrews announces the new proposed map for Local Authorities in Wales, with plans to reduce the number of County Councils from 22 to 8 or 9. This follows the recent White Paper ‘Power to Local People’ which outlined ways to ensure communities had a say in decisions that affect them.
Electoral Reform Society (ERS) Cymru welcomed many of the White Paper proposals, but noted one glaring omission – ensuring a fair voice for all opinions through the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote(STV) for local elections in Wales, as they have in Scotland.
That absence becomes even more conspicuous in light of the new larger councils. STV becomes even vital with fewer councils to ensure fair representation for local communities, to ensure better scrutiny, and to ensure a real choice for voters in the new, larger councils.
We all know how local communities often feel marginalised in the Council Chamber, especially if they are not represented by the ruling party. People at the heads of the Valleys will complain that the lower valleys are gaining at their expense, inner cities may feel excluded compared with suburbs, People in rural areas may complain that towns are getting everything, and vice-versa.
I myself come from a village in Gwynedd called Beddgelert, who doubtless complain about nearby Porthmadog who in turn complain about Caernarfon, and we all complain about Cardiff (and everyone in Wales complains about London!)
Joking aside, with larger councils under the First-Past-the-Post system we currently use, ruling parties’ support will often be concentrated from particular parts of a larger geographical area, exacerbating differences and excluding strong communities of interest. This will make more people feel excluded from the process and will foster more division. STV will ensure that parties are able to gain support from across the new council regions, and will need to do so to gain power. This will allow for better representation of all areas in the new Councils.
Artificial majorities can lead to mini one-party states. We know that this is less likely to lead to good decision making for the people they serve and is a breeding ground for patronage, clientelism and behind the scenes deal-making. Fostering proper debate through fair representation of different parties and opinions is vital so that the council chamber can act as an effective watchdog over decisions made by Council Leaders and ruling parties.
STV can also ensure that there is real electoral competition in all wards in Wales, and that there is an end to uncontested seats. In the 2012 council elections in Wales, 99 seats were uncontested and over 140,000 voters were denied a choice of who would represent them. Scotland used to have the same problem. However, since the introduction of STV in 2008 for Scottish local elections there have been no uncontested seats at all.
If the Welsh Government is serious about renewing local democracy, ensuring proper choice, proper scrutiny and a proper local voice would be a good start. For real renewal of local democracy in Wales, the new councils must be elected by STV.