Opinion

What role for local government in the debate on Wales’s constitutional future?

23 Feb 2021 9 minutes Read
Picture from Neath Port Talbot Council

Steve Thomas

It’s a feature of current political debate that huge energy is spent arguing for enlarged democracy for Wales, but silence dominates when it comes for the case for democracy within Wales.

While the national argument rages, local government languishes in a lower league, often maligned and prone to scoring own goals. If it is given any attention, it is usually on the question whether the league should comprise 22 teams or not.

In fact some council leaders believe the term ‘local government’ carries negative connotations, so they barely use it. They speak of schools, social care, housing and food safety, at which point public affection grows exponentially. A lesson learned is no one cares about the delivery agent; it is the service that they cherish.

Yet as the pandemic has raged local government has, without great fanfare, successfully delivered for communities. Leaders like the energetic Andrew Morgan in RCT, also heading WLGA, have expertly dealt with a dual crisis of flooding and Covid 19. Local politicians are the frontline of politics, they roll their sleeves up and they tough it out with an angry community when things go wrong.

In addition, the Minister for Housing and Local Government, Julie James MS has shown a more empathetic approach to central-local relations. Welsh Government has played a vital role in covering council costs incurred in the pandemic, and the communications framework established between Welsh Ministers and WLGA should be the source of detailed study that recognises it as best practice.

Contrast this with England where councils have been pushed to one side and a failed array of the “chumocracy” in consultancies and outsourcing firms has bled the public purse dry. England’s test and trace repeatedly missed its targets despite its £22bn cost. In Wales, for a fraction of that, the local government-based system succeeded. So did ensuring the distribution of business grants to keep Welsh firms alive, the development of hyper-local community hubs, and more besides.

Power

A new publication Shifting the Balance by the think-tank ‘New Local’ explores how councils, including those in Wales, have joined together with communities to fight Covid-19. Localities were the natural operational unit for much of the pandemic response. The key lesson being that those public service organisations that responded best to the pandemic and lockdowns were those that followed the lead of their local communities and enabled, rather than inhibited, their activities.

As the report states “2020 proved to many councils that mobilising residents is not just a nice-to-have but an absolute necessity… community power is not just for pandemics.” As ever it is the woman working in the play group not the Whitehall civil servant who knows best. In Wales it is clear that the Well-Being of Future Generations Act drove some of this and that Welsh town and community councils played a key role.

Why then don’t councils figure strongly in discourse about the future of Welsh governance? “We the People” by Sue Essex and Mick Antoniw MS had many good things to say on this. It proposed “a new constitutional settlement should be established for local government embedded in legislation, giving local authorities parity of esteem with central and devolved legislatures”.

Sadly this has been lost in the subsequent debate between the relative merits of independence, federalism and devo-max. But why is it that the debates on this exclusively centre on extra powers for Cardiff Bay and Edinburgh? Shouldn’t it also be about ensuring that powers are devolved downward to local government and local people?

Arm’s length

The UK is the most heavily centralised state in Europe. Unfortunately, some of this ‘Jacobin’ fervour has rubbed off onto devolved politicians. In Wales terms like “earned autonomy” and “mandating” are often used. While in Scotland the SNP has expertly implemented austerity through letting council cuts do the heavy lifting. Across England, the UK Government has eviscerated councils, treating them as lower forms of political life.

To add to these tribulations across the UK the growth of the regulatory state is discernible. In Wales, Rhodri Morgan’s “bonfire of the quangos” was extinguished long ago. We now appear to cheerfully accept a growing number of bodies with no accountability other than the odd appearance to a Senedd committee and a direct line to the Civil Service or Minister.

Let’s not pretend that these indirect governing relationships don’t have huge advantages for the Government. It allows the performance of arm’s length organisations to be blamed when things go wrong and political credit to be taken when things go right. It creates the impression of a ‘Chinese Wall’ between political and organisational control when in fact the opposite is often the case. As Andrew Davies a former Minister and senior Welsh LHB chair argued in 2019, civil servants were actually “micromanaging” his health board “and getting in the way of delivering services”.

This behind-the-scenes complexity results in Byzantine bureaucratic structures, in which responsibility is so widely dispersed that accountability is virtually impossible. Aneurin Bevan stated “that the purpose of gaining power is to be able to give it away”, however the evidence suggests that most politicians are notoriously possessive of it.

Responsible

The Welsh media has covered the misfortunes of bodies like Natural Resources Wales, NHS Wales Informatics Service et al. But take another topical example. Public Health Wales has not had a great campaign throughout the pandemic with big data losses and other mistakes. The squeals of Welsh Ministers have been audible. It makes perfect sense to have a centralised service to control specialist labs such as those with clinical microbiology, health protection and disease surveillance. But the strong performance by councils during the pandemic demands a debate on the future of this function. Public health was founded within local government and in England relevant powers were returned to councils in 2007.

Across Wales community action with local politicians playing a key role has been paramount in tackling public health. They have worked with local directors of public health (advising care homes, sourcing PPE, assisting hospital discharge) and been supported by locally accountable environment health specialists. But why with local Directors of Public Health in place aren’t these located in local government in a wellbeing service that links to housing, social care, environmental health etc? Also set within a framework of local democratic control and place-based population health systems.

Surely responding to the ever-growing health inequalities of diverse communities across Wales requires them to be ‘on the ground’ and accountable? The same sentiment applies to the UK leviathan that is the Food Standards Agency (FSA). Wales should be responsible for its own food safety and food hygiene as in Scotland.

Enigma

This is not a right or left issue, although it is noticeable that many “progressives” seem strangely comfortable with the diminution of local democratic control? Dr Lee Jones has argued that increased power for unelected bodies reflect deep-seated changes in the way state power is conceived and organised. As he states, “not just in Britain but in other “advanced” economies, a system built around dispersing responsibility, accountability and control is, unsurprisingly, irresponsible, unaccountable, and not in control of its fate”.

The NHS is a prime example. We rightly applaud frontline staff for their superb dedication throughout COVID but what about the unelected Chairs and Boards who are appointed by and accountable to the Minister? Local democratic and scrutiny oversight arrangements of these are almost non-existent. Thus Betsi Cadwaladr’s five years of special measures was an essentially a dialogue between Cardiff Bay and a dysfunctional organisation/board.

Shouldn’t the prime accountability be to the people who use the service and their local representatives? Let’s be frank at this point, who in Wales fully understands the role of those enigma’s wrapped in mystery called Community Health Councils? When the dust settles from the pandemic, a deep review will be required of the entirety of the Welsh public sector to judge its fitness for purpose.

Paralyzed

There is another worrying dimension to this since Welsh civil society is notoriously “shy” in coming forward with a view. It appears that offering an opinion or criticism of any part of our organisational performance is currently seen as anti-devolution or anti-Welsh? In a country which has been dominated by one party this can create a culture of calculated acquiescence and “quietism”. We live in an age of a global democratic recession. Surely politics as the pursuit of “keeping your head down” or “not rocking the boat” cannot be the height of Welsh political ambition at this time?

Similarly if local government makes a bold bid for empowerment it must put its own house in order. The age and gender balance in terms of councillors is scandalous. Even worst is the near absence of people from Wales’ BAME communities. Most all some parts of our representative democracy of local government can seem paralyzed when it meets the participative democracy of people power.

Historically all pandemics have led to an expansion of state power but an overbearing UK state is being questioned like never before. Its neurotically centralising impulse no longer binds together a society polarised by the divisions of wealth, climate change and poverty.

It is why it is imperative that we recognise one of the guardrails of Welsh democracy is a strong, properly funded and empowered local government that is locked into a new Welsh constitutional settlement.

The corollary of this is a local government that firmly supports and actively encourages people to be at the heart of how communities, public services and democracies are run.

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