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Why the local government Green Paper gets it wrong

June 18th 2018

Victoria Winckler questions the assumptions in the Welsh Government’s Green Paper on Local Government and argues that the real problem is not the number of councils but the number of people who don’t care.

Last week was the deadline for responses to the Welsh Government’s Green Paper on local government reform. It was, sadly, another bog-standard approach to the alleged problems of local government in Wales.  Over and again we come back to the same, tired answer: fewer councils delivering the same old cash-strapped services. This Green Paper dressed up the solution with a rousing introduction about empowerment but there was not much in the paper itself to explain how this was going to happen. Instead we had talk about lack of sustainability and lines on a map.

It may well be that this Green Paper will go the same way as previous attempts to reshape Welsh local government i.e.  to the back of the cupboard. Certainly, there’s precious little support in local authorities themselves nor do Assembly Members seem to be lining up for change. It remains to be seen how people responded to the consultation, despite the consultation’s pre-set questions being the most loaded I’ve seen in a long time. But don’t count on a local government bill coming forward any time soon.

The Green Paper focuses on the wrong problem.

The Green Paper is all about sustainability, although it’s not clear why this is suddenly a problem for a system that has survived 22 years and counting.

Lack of sustainability is also a problem that could solved by reversing the cuts in local councils’ budgets. The Welsh Government’s funding is of course under pressure, but the cuts to council services are a political choice.  It has prioritised, for example, supporting film studios and free rides on TrawsCymru buses rather than funding libraries or fillng pot-holes.

The real issue is a weak democracy

The Green Paper turns a cheek to the real problem; the parlous state of local democracy in Wales. In a nutshell, not enough people stand for election, the people who do stand don’t reflect the diversity of the population, too few people vote for them, it’s too hard to find out what they do, and so people feel disengaged and ignored, and so it goes on.

And at the root of this problem is that people don’t understand who does what, and don’t feel they can make a difference even when they do. So if your son has a problem with the local college – who do you call? Unhappy with your leisure centre – that’ll be … ? Want to ask about disabled access on the south Wales metro – well your guess is as good as mine.

The fundamental principles that should shape Welsh local government

Before worrying about lines on a map, we should get down to basics. What do we want local councils to do? This is partly a question about what services we want them to provide but it’s also about their wider role as leaders and representatives of people and places.

Veterans of the 1996 reorganisation – like myself – will tell you that there is no such thing as pain-free reform. So if there is to be all the upheaval of a reorganisation, it had better be worth it.  Any changes should respect the following principles:

  • councils should reflect the reality of where people live and work.

It shouldn’t need to be said but it does. Local authorities should be local. That’s why they exist. And so they should relate closely to the places they are meant to serve.  This should rule out in an instant the nonsensical idea of a Merthyr – Rhondda Cynon Taff – Bridgend authority.

Controversially, if this means more councils, so be it. And if it means they deliver fewer services, also so be it.

  • councils should reflect the diversity of the local population

If councils were representative you’d think the entire population comprised older, white men. While there are a few notable exceptions that challenge this picture (leaders Cardiff and Newport Councils stand up!), they are the exception. Councils need a greater range of ages, ethnicity, genders, disabilities and educational backgrounds if they are to be truly representative.

  • councils should be transparent and accountable

It should be absolutely clear what your council is responsible for and what it is not, so that if you don’t like it you can change it. Joint working – and structures like City Regions in particular – means it is unclear who is responsible for what decision. And how the average citizen has their say in those decisions is, frankly, clear as mud.

  • councils should have something meaningful to do

Again it should not need to be said, but councils are not government agencies. They should be able to make meaningful decisions about what happens in their areas.

And this could well mean questioning the many other public services that are delivered locally for which there is no democratic oversight at all – think of the NHS, further education, Natural Resources Wales and the myriad of other Welsh Government quangos and arms-length bodies.

Instead of focusing on structures and services, we need a new Green Paper that focuses on strengthening democracy. For it is only by ensuring that people’s voices are heard and taken into account that we will have healthy, vibrant and – dare I say it – sustainable local authorities.

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation. You can read our response to the Green Paper here and find out more about our proposed work on local democracy here. We welcome partners to help us strengthen local democracy  – please get in touch if you would like to work with us. 

 

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