Fears move to regional government in Wales would ‘diminish democratic accountability’
Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter
Fears have been raised that a move to regional government in Wales would “diminish democratic accountability” and move power away from voters.
The Welsh Government wants to create four regional bodies across Wales to decide on where to build huge new housing developments and invest in transport across the region.
The four corporate joint committees (CJCs) would be created in south-east Wales, south-west Wales, north Wales and mid-Wales. Sitting on the committees would be leaders of each council in the area.
And a council boss in the south-east has warned now that while the move could bring major economic benefits, huge decisions changing communities would be taken a big step away from the people they would affect.
Paul Orders, chief executive of Cardiff council, described the democratic set-up of CJCs as “sub-optimal” and warned they could diminish democratic accountability.
In a report to the council’s cabinet, he said: “With no power for the electorate to directly elect those represented on the CJC, it must be recognised that elements of the democratic process are being further removed from the electorate and local councillors.”
The Welsh Government is currently consulting councils across the country on the changes, with a view to establish the four CJCs by next April. Cardiff council’s cabinet, which meets on Thursday, December 17, will be asked to approve the draft response to the consultation.
The south-east Wales CJC would cover the same area as the Cardiff city-region: Blaenau Gwent; Bridgend; Caerphilly; Cardiff; Merthyr Tydfil; Monmouthshire; Newport; Rhondda Cynon Taf; Torfaen; and the Vale of Glamorgan.
One of the key tasks of CJCs would be to draw up strategic development plans — similar to local development plans but on a much larger scale — effectively deciding where huge housing developments like Plasdwr in Cardiff should be built.
The local development plan in Cardiff drew significant controversy in 2015 and 2016 as it meant 40,000 new homes would be built, including 40 per cent on greenfield land, massively expanding the city.
A strategic development plan would mean in future that this extra housing could be built in neighbouring local authorities, like Rhondda Cynon Taf or Bridgend, to cater for projected population growth.
Mr Orders said the evidence was clear from across the world that city-regions with more decision-making powers do better economically. But he called for more powers to be devolved from the Welsh Government down to the CJCs, as well as up from councils.
He said: “The UK is currently one of — if not the most — centralised developed states in the OECD, and Wales has an opportunity to exercise the devolution advantage to support the Cardiff city-region.”
But the main problem with CJCs is how voting would work — the 10 councils in south-east Wales would have one vote each, despite major differences in the size of their populations.
Mr Orders said: “The practical consequence of this is that the 367,000 residents of Cardiff would be served by one representative with one vote, whilst the four smallest local authorities — with a collective population of fewer than 320,000 residents — would have four votes.”
However he said the benefits to the economy outweigh the potential loss of democratic accountability.
“Despite the inadequacies of the CJC governance arrangements as currently set out in the regulations, Cardiff council remains committed to establishing a regional approach to enhance the success of the city region,” the council boss said.
As well as planning on major developments, CJCs would also be responsible for writing regional transport plans. The regional approach would be another benefit, as public transport often stretches beyond the borders of local authority areas.
Mr Orders said: “A bold and fully joined-up approach to transport within the city-region will signal a decisive move away from the incrementalism that has characterised the development of mass public transport infrastructure in the region for many years — which is utterly inadequate if the Cardiff Capital Region is to address the climate emergency, increase productivity and connect communities with opportunity.”