A few weeks ago, Electoral Reform Society Wales gave evidence to the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee about the new Local Democracy Bill making its way through the National Assembly.
Is the new Local Democracy Bill enough to ensure local authorities are democratically representative of their communities? Does it make sure that they are organised in the most effective way, and engage well with the public?
In short, no.
The Bill, which is currently progressing through committee stage, is a rather dry, albeit necessary piece of legislation that primarily seeks to address some of the longstanding concerns surrounding the Local Government Boundary Commission (remember the Matthias Review?). The Electoral Reform Society is broadly happy with what’s in the Bill. Our disappointment lies with what’s missing.
We presented evidence to the Communities, Equalities & Local Government Committee and outlined our three observations:
- Firstly, the Bill should be amended to bolster scrutiny. Over the last 10 years various pieces of law and public policy have boosted the role of council executives. But as Cardiff University’s report on the Scrutiny Development Fund showed, there are major gaps in the scrutiny process. More needs to be done.
- Secondly, how is the Bill going to get more people involved and engaged in local government? Simple but important steps like placing a duty on the reformed Boundary Commission to engage the public, and boost transparency and openness in community councils, can be progressed in this Bill. But clearly, we need a longer, harder look at what policy measures we can implement to revitalise citizens’ participation in local democracy.
- Finally, it’s time to ditch the outdated First Past The Post system. Even people who support FPTP for Westminster elections must concede that it’s not working in Welsh local government. In the 2012 council elections, over 140,000 people were deprived a vote on mainland Wales because their local council seat was uncontested. In Powys, 23 of the 73 seats on the council were uncontested. It’s a problem common across Wales and something Scotland solved overnight when it introduced a fair voting system.
The problem of FPTP doesn’t just end at the ballot box. In Blaenau Gwent Labour won 55% of the vote but won over 80% of the seats leaving just 12 opposition councillors. Stronger executives need stronger opposition to challenge and scrutinise them. 48% of councillors agree FPTP is negatively impacting on scrutiny. The link between poor governance and poor performance in the delivery of public services is obvious. It’s time we changed how we choose our local politicians.
There’s still time for the Welsh Government and AMs to amend the Bill and give Wales the local government it needs. But as the Society made clear in its evidence to the committee, there is a much more fundamental question to ask: that of local government re-organisation.
The shadows of the 1996 re-organisation still loom large in local government’s collective memory, but the more successful re-organisation of 1974 – in terms of implementing change if not the structure itself – is largely forgotten.
It’s time politicians bit the bullet and began an open and frank debate about what we want local government to do in a post-devolved Wales.
The debate should begin not by asking ‘how many local authorities do we want’ but rather ‘how many local authorities do we need’. At what level should we deliver public services? How does scrutiny and democratic accountability fit in? What is the role for town and community councils? And how can citizens in communities play a greater part in the decision-making process?
Welsh Labour’s 2011 election manifesto commits the party in government to establishing an “Independent Commission to review the governance and delivery arrangements of public services in Wales and make recommendations on the most effective delivery of those public services”.
Such a commission would provide the ideal vehicle to lead this debate in Wales – but crucially must address the erosion of democratic accountability in local government and public services. Working independently such a commission could finally begin to right the mess of the 1996 review. The Commission’s finding would then inform parties’ manifestoes and provide the next Welsh Government with a political mandate for reform.