The latest evidence of creeping centralism down in the Bay is the proposal floated by Leighton Andrews to centralise the provision of education services under the control of the Assembly Government. I don’t disagree with everything he says; like him, if I were designing a way of delivering services such as education, I wouldn’t have come up with the idea of 22 authorities within Wales. And, like him, I’m unhappy at the performance of the education system in Wales.
What I’m not so convinced about, however, is that the answer to those problems lies in the organisational structure. I have seen no evidence to support the proposition that a centrally managed service will of necessity produce results which are any better than we are seeing now. I certainly don’t accept the utter self-confidence with which so many AMs seem to assume that services run by them will deliver better results than those same services run by someone else.
One of my major problems with the centralising proposal is the implicit assumption that education authorities are accountable to the minister for their performance, rather than to the electorate in the areas they serve. AMs are, quite rightly, quick enough to bridle at any suggestion that they are accountable to the UK Government for their performance; why are they so ready to defend their own electoral mandate whilst denying that of local councillors?
But the biggest problem that I have with what is being suggested is that it looks like reorganising local government in Wales by the back door, without proper discussion or consideration. According to the glossy leaflet which Carmarthenshire issued with my council tax bill, marginally over half of all expenditure paid for by council tax goes on education and children’s services. Education alone probably accounts for 30 – 40% of what the county council does. Taking that away from local government is a huge – and unprecedented – reduction in the scope and powers of local authorities, and doing it in isolation without consideration of the wider impact looks to be very rash.
I’m not wedded to the idea that there should be 22 local authorities in Wales; nor am I wedded to the idea that their responsibilities and powers are immutable and set in stone. But I am wedded to the idea that there is a value to local democracy, to devolution of power within Wales, not just to Wales, and that local exercise of power, if it is meaningful, has to include the right to do things differently rather than simply adhere to standards and processes laid down elsewhere.
My politics starts from the notion that sovereignty resides with the people, and that we can choose how that should be pooled and where; AMs, like MPs, seem increasingly to believe that sovereignty is theirs to divvy out – or retain – as they wish. The gulf between those viewpoints is far from being a small one, and unless we are careful, Wales could end up being more centralised than the unitary British state ever managed to be.