Peter Black: A Liberal Democrat vision for Wales –  a personal view

In a previous article I started to discuss where local government will fit into a newly empowered Welsh Assembly, making laws within the ambit of the twenty fields of competence granted by the Government of Wales Act 2006.

I argued that 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 then (and now) was 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. In contrast, the Welsh Government’s agenda is becoming much clearer as we approach the next set of Assembly elections.

My concern is that in Labour and Plaid Cymru we have two very centralising parties whose objective is to emasculate local government.  Already, we have heard calls for social services and education to be taken off local councils, whilst the intentions of other parties towards reorganisation remain secret. Ministers are seeking or have acquired legislative competence over the governance arrangements of schools and also over many new aspects of local councils but are not saying what they will do with it.

In fact there seems to be a cross-party consensus that there will be a reorganisation of local government in Wales after the 2011 Welsh General Election, the problem is that nobody wants to talk about it until then and the chances of any coherence emerging from any of the other parties as to how they see the future structure of local government is negligible.

Motives are particularly important in this process. Everybody acknowledges that having 22 Councils means that a number are too small to achieve economies of scale and that there needs to be some reform to address this. However, there is no consensus on what the future map of Wales should look like.

My view is that this issue needs to be addressed before the 2011 Welsh General Election not just because there is a need for a debate but also because how a party plans to reform our democratic structures goes to the heart of their vision for Wales.

Firstly, what is the role of the Welsh Government and of the Welsh Assembly? Following a successful referendum, their role is to set out policy, to make laws and to deliver that through guidance and funding decisions. It is not their role to directly deliver services, nor in my view should they seek to set up other arms-length bodies or add to the role of existing bodies by passing over to them functions currently delivered by Councils.

Secondly, how do we give people greater control over the decision-making process in their own areas? There are in fact many ways that this can be done but I would suggest that the starting point is to enable the democratically elected bodies that serve local communities, in this case the Welsh unitary authorities.

These councils should be more accountable, constituted on a scale that can deliver services efficiently and encompass a broader range of responsibilities so as to produce a more strategic and joined up approach to governance.

To achieve this I would envisage reforming local government so as to create eight or ten unitary councils elected by the single transferable vote system in multi member wards. There would be fewer Councillors, approximately a third less, making between 800-900 across Wales but in return they would be better remunerated so that they could devote a substantial amount of time to delivering and scrutinising services and acting in a more strategic way. Each Council would be run by a full time Cabinet with no more than ten Councillors in each executive body and have a number of strategic directors.

I would disband the heath boards and pass their functions to the democratically elected Councils, thus creating a single health and social care function that would eliminate duplication and waste and be accountable to local electors not the centre.

I would transfer all of post 16 education back to Councils so that they could deliver the 14 to 19 agenda as a seamless whole and incorporate the very important vocational education delivered by FE colleges into their service provision.

I would also give Councils greater strategic control of transport within their area including the power to deliver cross-modal transport solutions and a wider economic development remit. As part of this I would suggest that it should be these bigger unitary authorities who should be delivering regeneration initiatives such as Communities First on behalf of the Welsh Government, not the Government micro-managing it from the centre.

There are many other central government functions that might be better delivered by such a strategic locally elected body. That is a matter for further discussion. My purpose here is to start a debate and to get people thinking about a way forward.

I am an instinctive democrat. That means that I believe in empowering local people and giving them a chance to influence the direction of services in their own area. Democracy may have its flaws and at a local level I am sure that everybody can come up with a horror story that involves their local Council but ultimately it is for the electorate to cast the final verdict and with proportional voting that becomes much easier.

Instead of national politicians treating local government as scapegoats and indulging in playing blame games, let us find a way to work together as equals and in a way that for once delivers the sort of transparency and accountability that was promised when devolution was first voted on in 1997.

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

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