There has been much discussion about the nature of local government in Wales. We were left with a local government system that commonly is described as having unitary all purpose authorities that replaced the former two tier system. In actuality its more complex than that.
A quick bit of history. Wales was, until re-oganisation in 1974, divided into 13 county councils, 4 county borough councils, several hundred municipal boroughs, urban and rural districts, to say nothing of parish councils. These were reduced to 8 county councils, 37 borough/district councils and several hundred community councils. A further re-organisation in 1996 reduced the count of councils down to 22 unitary or most purpose authorities (together with the often forgotten community councils). This of course ignores the existing joint boards and ad hoc authorities that run the police, fire and health service in Wales, all of which were once within the realm of local government.
Few people doubt that the current structure is untenable. Many of our 22 unitary authorities are too small to be effective bodies for administering certain services, education for example. The current trend is to organise service delivery into regional consortia; usually with one authority acting as a lead authority in the field. We are seeing these evolve in waste disposal and education, as well as in other areas. The Local Government minister is urging councils to share chief executives and other senior staff, share payroll and other financial administrations etc. What is emerging is a patchwork of overlapping consortia, joint boards and ad hoc single purpose bodies running what were once part of local governmental.
For the public its sometimes very difficult to work out just who does what and who is responsible for what. In terms of democratic accountability these new bodies are sadly lacking. The recent move to executive governance in local authorities has created great powers of patronage with the leadership, membership of the consortia bodies – when they exist, is very much in their gift. I worry that this all diminishes the role of ordinary councillors and the wider public. I do not think that this is healthy.
Effectively we are now overlaying on the existing structure new bodies, all with different make ups, all serving different geographical areas and all reducing coherent and joined up government.
Other suggestions of sharing chief executives and senior officers creates more problems, what if the two or more local authorities have different policies and priorities, how do the shared officers deal with this conflict? Or do we end up with the officers making political decisions? If so whether democracy now?
I think its time to grasp the nettle and reform local government – yes it will cost money and in the time of recession can we afford it? Maybe the damage to democracy is to great to leave this much longer and permit the drift to unaccountable and fragmented government to continue.
My first step would be to strengthen the first level of government in Wales, the often neglected community councils. After reorganisation in 1974 they covered nearly all areas in Wales. Essentially nearly every community had a community council. These were originally the rural parishes and urban district councils. The areas of the four original county boroughs were exempt, and some small communities opted to share a council with a neighbouring larger community. In the former county borough councils no community councils were established, though their pre 1974 territory was divided into communities for electoral purposes. Currently communities can create and disband councils – though the threshold is now quite high.
As a first reform I would ensure that every area was covered by a community council. Which would mean that the existing communities in Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and Merthyr Tydfil would gain community councils, and those few communities with no population (such as the one covering the Port Talbot Steelworks) would be joined to their neighbouring community and share a community council.
Secondly I would elect these community councils by STV, either from a single electoral district or from a number of multi member electoral areas. In instances where more than one community shares a council then the constituent communities will elect a minimum of 3 members to the council (excepting those communities with no people!).
Thirdly for each community council there will be a parallel Youth Council, made up of young people aged between 11 and 18. The numbers and method of election/nomination I would leave to the community council. This youth council would be encouraged to take an active part in the affairs of the community, debating and sending recommendations to the community council. Ideally this would act both as conduit for youth views and as an incubator for new members of the community council.
Fourthly I would enable the county/county borough councils to devolve responsibility to community councils in their area, either to specific councils or to all community councils in their area.
Fifthly I would ensure that the cost of running community council elections was met completely by the county/county borough council.
Finally I would lower the voting age to 16 but retain the age where you can stand for election at 18.
I believe that this will strengthen grass roots democracy and encourage wider participation in local affairs.
These would have their functions reduced leaving them as an intermediary authority providing services as:
- waste collection
- local planning
- recreation and leisure facilities
- public toilets*
- street lights*
- weights, measures & trading standards
- the library service & museums
- public footpaths*
- non trunk roads.
- local police scrutiny
Like Community Councils I would elect the County Councils by STV. This will necessitate the creation of, at minimum, 3 member wards, I think the multi member nature of these wards is more likely to encourage electoral contests, which would be good for democracy. At present too high a percentage of seats are won "unopposed". Apart from separating Montgomeryshire from Powys necessitating the creation of a Brecon & Radnor County and de-merging the Cynon Valley from Rhondda Cynon Taff and merging it with Merthyr Tydfil to create a new Merthyr and Cynon Valleys council I would not alter the map. There is a great attachment to the old historic counties of in West Wales and I believe that they should be left in place, if with a slightly reduced role.
More generally my worry is democratic accountability, local government has been eroded everywhere, functions taken away and joint boards created with nominated and co-opted people. We have 7 health boards, 4 police authorities, 3 fire authorities and now education and waste disposal consortia. It seems to me that consortia have the greatest lack of democratic accountability yet devised for local government since the second world war.
Perhaps its time to bite the bullet and bring back into democratic control the police, fire and health authorities and create a new system of regional authorities taking on these functions - together with some functions from the current county councils. I would suggest keeping the existing authorities, with a few minor tweaks, but creating 5 regional bodies - lets call them Commissions, which would take over health & social services, fire, police, education (including further but not higher education), waste disposal, public transport, major roads and strategic planning. This would heal the democratic divide that has crept into public administration in the last 30 or so years, leaving community councils to be strengthened and the existing county and county borough councils to run more local services, like housing, local planning, leisure services and supporting local community organisations.
These regional commissions, would be elected by STV from multi member area, using the existing unitary authorities as the electoral areas as far as possible. I opt for direct election because I believe that nomination by another body, such as the existing unitary authorities would create split loyalties and increase the power of patronage for local government leaders. Direct election would give greater democratic legitimacy. The commissions would follow a committee structure, with 10 elected members and 5 members nominated as experts in the field, ie the Health Committee would have 5 co-opted members from the health service. Co-opted members would be voting members. Each subject committee would have a lead member, the lead members would in turn form a cabinet, which would be a co-ordinating and policy body. In addition to the subject committees there would be a number of committees, such as audit and budget. Membership of the committees would be voted on by the membership of the commission its self, by stv. The commission will meet annually to agree a budget, and monthly to approve the policy decisions of the committees and question lead members.
I would envisage the main subject committees mirroring the main areas of responsibility:
- Education (including further but not Higher Education)
- Waste Disposal/recycling
- Transport, including trunk roads but not designated Motorways and Motorway class roads.
- Strategic Planning and Economic Development
- Fire and Civil Defence
Regional Commissioners would be full time and paid elected officials, they would be paid on a scale set by the same body that sets AMs pay, and there would be special allowances for chairs and lead members. The co-opted members would receive payment based on attendance, again at a rate set by the AMs pay body.
The regions would be:
The NorthComprising the unitary authorities of Ynys Mon, Gwynedd, Conwy, Denbighshire, Wrexham, Flintshire, I would also split Montgomeryshire from Powys, creating a new unitary/most purpose authrority and add it to the new Northern Regional Commission. The new commissions would have be elected as follows:
|Montgomeryshire||63300 (estimated 2010)||3|
Comprising the unitary authorites of Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Brecon & Radnor (from Powys). The new Deheubarth Commission would be elected as follows:
|Ceredigion||76938||5||Pembrokeshire||117086||8||Carmarthen||102417 (estimated)||7||Llanelli||78300 (estimated)||5||Brecon & Radnorshire||68013 (estimated)||5||Total||442815||30|
Comprising the unitary authorities of Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Brigend. The new Swansea Bay Commission would be elected as follows:
Comprising the Unitary Authorities of Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan, Rhondda Taff Ely, Merthyr & Cynon Valleys. I would take the Cynon Valley from Rhondda Cynon Taff and merge with Merthyr Tydfil to make two new Unitary Authorities. The East Glamorgan Commission would be elected as follows:
|Cardiff South West||113836||6|
|Cardiff North Central||125758||7|
|Cardiff South East||96442||5|
|Vale of Glamorgan||124976||7|
Comprising the Unitary Authorities of Newport, Monmouthshire, Torfaen, Blaenau Gwent and Caerffili. The Gwent Commission would be elected as follows: