The relationship between the Welsh Assembly and Local Government has often been a fraught one with many ups and downs over the last ten years. When the Government of Wales Act was passed in 1998 many local council leaders were suspicious and wary. Their view was if we are to have devolution then why not devolve powers straight to local government. After all Wales had had unitary authorities since 1996 what was the point in recreating another tier of government? They had a point.
The consequence of that attitude was that for the first term at least the Welsh Government trod very carefully around the sensitivities of councils, ensuring that there were proper protocols in place, consulting on all decisions and delivering some of the best financial settlements Councils have seen for some time, without capping. It helped that Welsh Liberal Democrats formed part of that administration of course.
The second Assembly term, in which Labour ran things as a minority administration was much the same but there was evidence of a hardening attitude towards Councils along the line of the previous Welsh Office and by the third Assembly it was business as usual.
Ministers now talk about initiatives that are far more centralising in effect, such as dictating what charges will be set by Councils for personal care. They talk tough at budget time and threaten capping and within the Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition there is even talk of taking powers off Councils, of directly funding schools, of giving social services to unelected health boards and of getting rid of Councils that do not meet favour.
All of this is made easier of course by the disappearance of Labour’s monopoly in local government. Welsh Liberal Democrats for example help run 12 of the country’s 22 local authorities. But the overriding impression is that the brave new world brought on by devolution is behind us, that being in government in a small country with limited powers causes Ministers to look elsewhere for ways to run people’s lives and that as a result local authorities in Wales are under threat of emasculation.
It has not come to that yet of course but the danger is there and it grows even bigger the longer the two great centralising parties of Wales, Labour and Plaid Cymru remain in government.
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