In the first article of the ‘Merger, He Wrote’ series, Steve Brooks director of the Electoral Reform Society Cymru reflects on the Welsh Government’s new white paper on local democracy.
For the last two decades, the story of Welsh devolution has been about the transfer of power from Westminster to Cardiff Bay. Little real thought was given to further devolution from Cardiff Bay to local councils, and from local councils to local communities. This week, that changed. The Welsh Government published its White Paper Reforming Local Government: Power to Local People; 106 pages of ideas with the intention of boosting local democracy and putting local people in the driving seat.
There is a glaring omission: no mention of changing the voting system. The timetable for the White Paper won’t see a Bill introduced until after the next Assembly election, and Leighton Andrews, perhaps serving in a coalition government, may well need to dust-off the 2004 recommendations of the Sunderland Commission and introduce proportional representation anyway. But the White Paper’s awkward silence on voting reform shouldn’t prevent us from recognising it as a major step forward for local democracy.
Back in 2012, when we presented evidence on the Local Democracy Bill, we said that that legislation was a missed opportunity. Much could have been done to re-cast the relationship between the state and the citizen, but instead the Bill focused on technical details. It’s welcome therefore that this White Paper grasps many of the ideas we debated back then, and in some instances strengthens them further.
At the heart of the White Paper is defining what local government is for. For decades, municipal democracy has been chipped away and our councils viewed by many as agencies of the Welsh Government; ‘mere’ public service delivery bodies. But the White Paper asserts that local government is more than that. It argues that our councils should be about community leadership, that their fundamental role is ‘place-shaping’. To put it another way, local authorities are local Governments.
The White Paper proposes some limited changes to how elections work. Not tackling the voting system is an error. Many of the proposals in the White Paper address problems in local government that stem from how dysfunctional the voting system is. In 2012 over 95 councillors were elected unopposed thanks to First Past The Post. The Welsh Government’s exploration of whether Welsh local elections should be by thirds (where a third of councillors are up for election each year), misses the point. Local politics would become a lot more competitive with Proportional Representation. The White Paper’s idea that Assembly Members should be barred from also being councillors will excite debate on both sides and should be considered carefully. The suggestion that independent candidates declare membership of registered political parties, a recommendation of ours, is a straight forward win for the voter.
Aside from limited electoral reform, there will be a set of much more major ‘constitutional reforms’ to how local government works. The Electoral Reform Society has argued that the relationship between devolved and local government and their respective roles should be codified or laid out in law. The Paper refers to the Future Generations Bill’s ‘wellbeing goals’ to illustrate the intention that Welsh Government, like the Scottish Government, will set fewer, broader national objectives and local government will be free to determine how these objectives are met. There’s a hint that local government will gain Reserved Powers, or the ‘power of general competency’ as it’s known in town hall tea rooms; a power exercised by English authorities. The White Paper goes further, by arguing for ‘Written Constitutions’ outlining the general principles for each council, and seeks to simplify law in this area and redress some of the unintended consequences brought about by two decades of legislation and policy.
There’s recognition that the leader/cabinet model is open to concentrating power in the hands of a few, locking out backbench councillors and the public from decision making. The relationship between cabinet members and senior staff can at best become too cosy and at worse dysfunctional, leading to officer-led authorities. Learning from places like Denmark, legislation will define much more clearly the roles of leaders, cabinet members, councillors and senior council staff.
There’ll be a statutory requirement that all local authorities produce a corporate plan which could become the municipal equivalent of a programme of government. This in turn could lead to political parties developing much sharper, smarter and publicly available election manifestoes.
The Welsh Government has also listened to concerns about scrutiny and accountability. Previous legislation provided dedicated staff support for backbench and opposition councillors to hold ruling councillors (and senior staff) to account – but more needs to be done and the White Paper acknowledges this. As it stand, often it’s the same staff teams serving individual cabinet members and scrutiny committees. It’s the equivalent of civil servants in the Welsh Government’s finance department, helping members of the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee hold the Welsh Government’s finance minister to account!
The White Paper notes that fewer than 50% of councillors publish an annual report: this will now become a statutory duty. But councillors will gain access to professional development and be allowed to specialise, focusing on certain aspects of their role like scrutiny or community leadership.
But where the White Paper really strikes new ground is in the field of community empowerment. All four Assembly parties have, in different ways, proud traditions of localism – traditions which quite often, they forget. Yet this White Paper represents something of a re-founding of Welsh Labour’s localist past, drawing inspiration from the party’s pioneers in the early co-operative movement. There are some radical ideas to give community bodies greater rights, including the power to open a dialogue with a council (put simply, if a community group thinks it can run or help run a service better, the council will be forced to listen); initiate asset transfers, and gain the ‘right to first refusal’ of private assets such as post offices and pubs.
The White Paper also supports our recommendations that ward councillors should be given executive responsibilities by creating statutory Area Committees and that local people should have a say through Ward Assemblies. New statutory Area Boards of local councillors will see certain decisions handed down to a ward level with a requirement that the Area Boards act in a participatory and inclusive way. This may sound like jargon, but the implications could be massive. Local people could decide local community safety priorities, the opening hours of the local park, residents’ parking and waste collection. This may not whet the appetite of constitutional lawyers, but for everyone who walks the dog, parks the car and puts the bins out – this is the stuff of everyday life and it matters.
There are further ideas on dragging Welsh local authorities into the 21st century, with proposals on diversity (as it stands we won’t see equal numbers of men and women councillors until 2076) and digital councils, with wider broadcasting of council meetings and enshrining in law the public’s ‘Right to Tweet’.
So whilst we remain disappointed that the Welsh Government is silent on voting reform, we cannot dismiss this White Paper as being overly focused on the technical details. If we engage with its proposals, it could, and should, herald the rebirth of Welsh localism.