Dafydd Meurig, Gwynedd Council Deputy Leader
As a county councillor, I have no real insight into how Welsh Government (WG) works, but I do have a good grasp of the way local authorities function, particularly my own, here in Gwynedd. Our top priority during this unprecedented emergency is to save as many lives as possible and support our communities.
The first few weeks of this present crisis were challenging for all, but I was willing to give the Government in Cardiff the benefit of the doubt, and time to get their act together.
A national emergency requires the national government to act decisively and give consistent messages. The absence of this has meant that local authorities like mine have had to take their own lead and make decisions in the interests of our own residents.
Surely a Wales-wide approach to the crisis would have put the well-being of all the country’s people at the centre of national decision-making?
But it seems that ministers have simply been hanging around to see what decision Westminster makes, before rolling out a similar policy with a vaguely Welsh flavour, 48hrs later. An example of this was seeing WG refuse to expand home-care testing in care homes, only to change their minds again a few days later.
From a delivery perspective, the original testing regime was farcical. It went something like this:
- Local Authority to collect names of symptomatic employees and private sector workers
- Local Authority to send up to 15 names to Data Cymru by 10am the following morning
- Data Cymru to scrutinise names and send to Public Health Wales
- Public Health Wales to send names on to relevant Health Board
- Local Health Board to arrange and carry out testing with each individual
- Samples to be driven to Cardiff for analysis
- Public Health Wales to be informed of the results
- Public Health Wales to send results to Data Cymru
- Data Cymru to send results to Local Authority
- Local authority to contact employee / private sector providers to inform them of result
This would be a very convoluted process in normal times, but it is especially so during an emergency where speed is of the essence. It certainly doesn’t sound like a system designed by someone experienced in delivering a front line service!
A few weeks ago, WG announced that small businesses were to receive substantial grants to help them through the crisis. In Gwynedd, this would have resulted in around £18m of public money finding its way to the pockets of some second home owners, who live outside the area. Cynically some of these second home owners have flipped their property over to the Business Rate system in order to avoid paying any Council Tax at all.
Gwynedd and four other affected counties had a favourable reception from WG Minister for Housing and Local Government Julie James, who directed officials to find a way to avoid this abhorrent misuse of tax-payers money.
A straightforward form of words proposed by Gwynedd – on the basis of knowing what would work for our rural communities – was replaced. WG’s form of words was far more difficult to implement, as proposed by their civil servants who are firmly ensconced in the Cardiff Bay bubble. The drawn-out discussions and delay has resulted in thousands of genuine holiday businesses having to wait weeks for their payment.
As Cabinet Member with responsibility for Adult Social Services, Health and Wellbeing, I and 21 other portfolio holders have been periodically summoned to ‘meetings’ with ministers, prior to Covid-19.
One recent example springs to mind. It involved a full day in Cardiff for a so-called ‘Learning Event’ where all of Wales’ ‘Regional Partnership Boards’ were to compare notes and share best practice. I expected this to be a golden opportunity to discuss with a WG minister, current plans and ideas for the future. Unfortunately, the Minister in question, Vaughan Gething made a 10-minute opening speech, took a few questions and disappeared. It seems this is de rigueur for this type of gathering.
Surely a real partnership approach – where genuine dialogue is undertaken with those who have real knowledge of what is happening on the ground – could only lead to better governance and ultimately better outcomes for the people of Wales?
Collaboration and involvement are two of the fundamental ways of working which WG has been keen to promote as their guiding principle. Let us please put these practices in place.
My overriding impression during this public health emergency is that of a shambolic WG running around like headless chickens, offering no leadership or clear direction. Are our leading politicians being dictated to by civil servants, who have little regard for, and possibly even contempt, towards local government?
It is interesting to note that WG doesn’t actually deliver front line services, whereas County Councils do. The new Welsh Government elected next year – whatever its political hue – would be wise to remember that.