Liberal Democrats have always been clear on where political power should reside. We are democrats and we are instinctive supporters of decentralisation and empowerment. We trust people to make their own choices and to run their own lives, or do we?
A few years ago I sat on the Party’s commission to look at public services. It was an unwieldy body that struggled to find focus and despite the fact that it was tasked to produce federal policy it delivered instead pages of English-only imperatives that served only to pad out its main thesis, that we should be empowering local people not turning public services into a money-making venture for private entrepreneurs.
In many ways the public-private argument is superfluous to the thrust of this article. At the end of the day who delivers a service is secondary to who controls and directs it and why they are doing so. The big surprise for me in all the discussions on the public service commission was the reluctance of some very good liberals to propose that English Councils and English Regional Government take on responsibility for the delivery of many public services that are currently within the ambit of central government.
The argument was that it was inappropriate to devolve these services down even though many of them are already being delivered by the Welsh and Scottish Governments. It was the sort of reluctance that later characterised the very weak proposals put forward by John Prescott for North East England, a proposition that was so poor that it deservedly got the thumbs down in my opinion.
Here in Wales there is a different debate. We have a devolved administration with limited law-making powers. We are currently engaged in a process that will lead to a referendum on whether we acquire full law-making powers on those areas devolved to us or not. Actually it is more complicated than that but I do not want to bore you. Needless to say, even after that vote the Welsh Assembly will have fewer powers than the Scottish Parliament.
The debate we are all avoiding however, is where local government fits into this scenario. At the moment we are assuming that the newly empowered Welsh Assembly will just take the place of Westminster in the constitutional mix and that is very much how we have played it to date. But there is a wider debate as to what structures we need to deliver services to a nation of 3 million people and in particular whether 22 local councils and seven health boards are appropriate vehicles to spend the bulk of the Assembly’s £15 billion budget.
My view is that we most probably need bigger and fewer Councils but that the main debate should be around the democratisation and accountability of service delivery as much as its efficiency. Accountability drives efficiency. It is one reason why the Assembly does not actually deliver services itself but funds others to do so. However, as a body the Welsh Government is demonstrating an increasing propensity to interfere in the work of elected bodies and in doing so remove local accountability.
It seems to me that in a liberal model of devolved administration, the government makes the laws and locally elected bodies deliver the services at the most appropriate level and without the duplication we have now. Thus, if for argument’s sake we were to revert to eight Unitary County Councils it would be logical for them to take over the running of the health service in their area from the health boards.
Is it appropriate for wider economic and transport powers to be given to such Councils? Should we task them with control over further education as well as sixth forms? Should they take over the role of Cadw on heritage in their area? Would we want them to have greater powers in terms of the environment and biodiversity? And if we were to settle on a model of say 15 local Councils how would we treat them?
This is a debate that still has to take place in Wales and it is inextricably linked in with getting the structures right so that we can deliver economies of scale at the same time as accountability and transparency. Even in a small nation the National Assembly is too big to do most of this properly and yet even the Welsh Liberal Democrats do not yet have a clear idea of where we want to end up, even if our instincts are entirely the right ones.
Cllr Peter Black AM is Swansea Councillor for Cwmbwrla and
Welsh Assembly Member for South Wales West. He is also the
Welsh Liberal Democrat Local Government Spokespersonpeterblack.blogspot.com