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The White Paper on Reforming Local Government

As most readers of the Blog will be aware, last week saw the Welsh Government publish their White Paper on local authorities (Reforming Local Government: Power to Local People). This was a lengthy and wide-ranging document, including a number of issues on which the government is actively soliciting outside opinions.

Most of the context of the White Paper touches on issues that fall well outside the remit of this Blog. But one part of the Welsh Government’s stated ambitions for local government reform is to improve democracy at local level. This clearly is directly related to what this blog is about: how elections are conducted, and who is elected through these elections.

There is much about the White Paper in this respect that reads rather well. I very much enjoyed reading the following statement:

“Democracy is the foundation which gives Local Government the moral and political authority to exercise the full range of powers and responsibilities vested in it by law. We believe this was insufficiently stressed in the report of the Commission for Public Service Governance and Delivery” (p.19).

I also support some more specific statements; for instance on p.26 the White Paper states that:

“We also believe it is important that candidates in Local Government elections are open and transparent about their political affiliations. We are therefore seeking views on whether candidates in Local Government elections should be required to record their membership of a registered political party on their nomination form, whether or not they are standing on behalf of that political party”.

I very much like this idea; there could be potential complications in implementation, but I strongly support such transparency and honesty in principle.

Elsewhere, on p.34 the White Paper proposes “an overall reduction in the number of Elected Members in Local Authorities to approximate more closely the position in the other parts of the UK”. All I can say in response to this is Yes! This is something for which I have been arguing for some years; we seem to be at least a bit closer to making it a reality.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal in this area of the White Paper will be that outlined on p.35, where the government says that it is “Seeking views” on whether there should be term limits for local councillors (five terms for elected members, two terms for leaders/Elected Mayors/Cabinet members). I am uncomfortable with the principle of restricting who the public can vote for, although I am also familiar with research evidence that has suggested some potential benefits in practice. By forcing well dug-in incumbents to move on, elections can be made more competitive and the membership of elected bodies can be refreshed. At the last round of Welsh local elections, 8.0% of all ‘elected’ councillors were actually returned unopposed, so we could certainly do with more vibrant electoral competition.

But there is a much better way to achieve this aim – and one that is also consistent with the other aims for representativeness of the White Paper. Scotland introduced the Single Transferable Vote system for local elections in 2007, and had its second round of using that system in 2012. In contrast to Wales, Scotland in 2012 had no councillors elected unopposed. STV produces far fewer safe seats for parties, and thus a greater degree of competition; rather than the same people forever re-elected with little competition in particular wards, and overall outcomes that bear little relationship to the verdict of the voters.

Sadly, the issue of electoral systems is wholly ignored throughout the entire document. It is what my former boss used to call a ‘screaming silence’. In the Foreword to the White Paper, by the Minister Leighton Andrews, we are told that “we must ensure local Councils are wholly representative of local communities” (p.vi). It is very difficult to disagree with that. But it would also be very difficult to actually achieve substantial progress towards this aim as long as we continue to choose our elected council members under electoral system(s) that actively promote un-representative outcomes.

On pages 31-33, for example, the White Paper develops a discussion about diversity in council representation, and the desirability of making local councils less dominated by white men over the age of 50. Yet, while the document as a whole makes an admirable effort to draw on relevant research, here it ignores the substantial research evidence that more proportional voting systems tend to produce electoral outcomes that are not only more representative in terms of the balance between parties, but also in terms of social characteristics.

In sum: I applaud the ambitions of the White Paper in terms of the democratic representativeness of local government in Wales. But these ambitions cannot realistically and convincingly be addressed unless the issue of the electoral system we use for choosing our councillors is also confronted.

Comments

  • Anne Greagsby

    Since 2007 the Single Transferable Vote (STV) voting system was used to elect Local Councillors in Scotland Only five councils in Scotland are now controlled by one party and 27 councils have no one party in control.

    COSLA the Scottish equivalent of WLGA report on local services delivery/democratising local councils for Scotland recommends almost the opposite of everything in the Williams Commission
    http://www.localdemocracy.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Final-Report-August-2014.pdf

  • Lyn Thomas

    The white paper has much to commend it and asks some pertinent questions, such as what is local government for, what should it do and how should it be run. I would agree the elephant in the room is the electoral system – the best way of putting the public in charge and increasing diversity is by moving away from multimember first past the post to STV.

    The white paper conveniently gives a thumbnail history of local government and how their range of functions have changed over time. While it touches on some of the nominated bodies, such as fire and rescue authorities, it doesn’t say much on how they should fit into local government.

    In my view public disenchantment with local politics owes a great deal to the lack of transparency and accountability engendered by the transfer of many former local government functions to joint boards, nominated bodies and assorted quangos. The white paper highlights past consolidation of the various bodies that had a confusion of functions, boundaries and franchises but yet does nothing to correct the drift to this in our current local government structure.

    Within the last 40 years local government in Wales has gradually lost many of its functions to these quasi government bodies. We have 4 police areas each with an elected Commissioner and to advise and oversee their work a nominated panel of people – does anyone know who these people are and in what way are they accountable to the pubic? We have 3 fire and rescue authorities, on different boundaries again from the police areas. These are made up mainly of councillors nominated by the leaders of the councils in their area. There are three National Park authorities – again mainly made up of representatives whose appointment is in the gift of council leaders. We have 4 transport consortia, again nominated bodies appointed by council leaders, likewise 4 education consortia.

    Central government has taken over the funding and oversight of further education colleges, formerly a local government function. In addition there are 7 nominated health authorities, one national ambulance trust and discussion of moving the social services, particularly the social care responsibilities from local councils to the health authorities. While health and social services are an obvious marriage will the pubic feel they have any greater say over these functions when they are further removed from democratic control. We also now have the South East Wales City Region and Swansea Bay City Region quangos, no one quite knows what they do yet but they are yet another board of the great and good appointed by central government to provide strategic direction in their regions.

    Lastly we have to look at the map. People feel an identity with many local government units, people identify, even now, with the old counties pre-1074, particularly in rural areas. There are fears that a further reorganisation will make local government even more remote from the people. I believe that the case for further reorganisation is unanswerable – the current structure of 22 most purpose authorities just isn’t right for the big ticket functions of education, social services, transport and economic planning -with a few exceptions the authorities are too small to carry out the function. However the creation of unwieldy mergers with further distance the bodies from the electorate and do nothing to deal with the plethora of nominated bodies that run so many of our services.

    In my view the only way round this is to re introduce two tier authorities. The existing councils have proposed one model, the English combined authorities model, where the council leaders would form regional committees to over see the big ticket functions, leaving their individual councils to run the more local services, such as consumer protection, housing etc. While this has some merit it fails the democracy test, once again you do not have any direct democratic control of yet another nominated body.

    I have previously blogged on proposals for two tier authorities. My map would have three city regions based on Swansea, Cardiff and Newport, and two other regions covering mid and west Wales and the north. These would fold in the various consortia (education, transport, waste disposal), police areas, health authorities and take over social services and education from the current unitary authorities, together with control over the national parks and the return of further education to their control. They would also assume control over the fire and rescue service and be responsible for ambulance services in their region. I would propose authorities with around 45 to 55 members elected by STV, with a cabinet of – for want of a better term – commissioners, who would provide executive oversight of the various functions of the authority. In addition I would have around 27 district/county authorities based on the current 22 unitary authorities which would run the remaining local government services, such as housing, pubic health, regulation of licensing etc. Again these would be elected by STV. Ideally these would be comprised of no more than 55 members and no less than 22. There would be a modest reduction in the total number of elected members but more importantly there would be fewer people sitting on quangos appointed by a small number of council leaders as the assorted joint boards would disappear to be subsumed into the new regional authorities.

    I believe this would reverse a half century trend in the removal of functions from local government and give people back control through a fully democratic electoral system that more accurately reflects the balance of local opinion.

  • Anne Greagsby

    Two points – Have the various ‘consortia’ ever been assessed? These are undemocratic and result in unaccountable large companies running services. I opposed the waste consortium cynically called ‘Project Gwyrdd’ actually ‘project Viridor incinerator’ unneeded and very expensive with no democratic discussion or consultation with the public and a;ready recycling rates are falling.
    Bigger councils, whether a tier or not, will result in more public services being outsourced or/and privatised and run by companies that don’t have to tell you anything like Atos, Capita, G4S and Serco, the four biggest outsourcing companies in the UK, receiving around £4 billion a year to run many of our public services. The public don’t want that. There isn’t adequate regulation of private companies running public services.
    Secondly we have heard before of a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ and we end up for example with three quangos The Countryside Council for Wales, Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission merged to form a single organisation Natural Resources Wales and find that is more undemocratic than the quangos with a labour run monopoly and conflict of interest as well as scandal Will a super cabinet of – ‘commissioners’ be any better? Do we really want super powerful Councillors on bigger salaries? Cabinet rule in councils at present isn’t working.

  • Lyn Thomas

    I would rather a cabinet of Commissioners responsible to a democratically elected regional council, where the commissioners would be the elected executive committee of that council than atomising public services and running them via unaccountable quangos or directly elected single function executives.

    The central point I was making is that as we remove functions from democratic scrutiny so the public have less faith in the electoral process and elected councils.

    Also while there are some functions that are better run by larger authorities there are others that should be run at a more local level, where people identify with the council concerned be it Pembrokeshire, Ynys Mon or Cardiff.

    We haven’t talked about Community Councils, I consider these vital, and should cover all the country, though there is need for some consolidation of the smaller communities to be served by a single community council.

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