The Western Mail devoted a large part of two pages on Friday to an editorial by its Chief Reporter proclaiming that the key question in this week’s council elections is the value for money which councils provide in the delivery of services. It’s hard to disagree with the assertion that we want value for money in local services; it’s motherhood and apple pie stuff. But is it really the main issue for local councils?
The problem for me is that it starts from unstated but implicit assumptions about what local government is for, and about how its objectives are set. But those assumptions owe little to the concept of meaningful local democracy; they owe more to a centralist view of local councils as being primarily deliverers of services, the nature and standard of which is defined by central (in this context, Welsh) government. Their power, in short, is derived by delegation from the centre, like their funding.
It brings me back to a point about which I’ve blogged many times before; if local democracy is to be meaningful, then it must allow the possibility of making alternative policy choices about the nature and standard of services provided. In short, we either have meaningful local government, where councils are allowed to define their own services and obliged to raise the whole of the money needed to pay for them (with central influence restricted to a mechanism for ensuring a degree of redistribution of resources from richer areas to poorer ones), or else we should abandon any pretence that we have a meaningful local democracy and run the services centrally. (And different ‘services’ might fall into different categories here.)
It’s a simple enough argument. Meaningful devolution of power from level A to level B includes the possibility that level B will do things in a way of which level A would not approve. As anyone in a large organisation would – or should – recognise, delegation of authority includes the authority to do things differently - and even to make 'mistakes'.
What surprises me is the way in which people can easily grasp that concept when the two levels involved are the UK and Wales, but regard it as alien and unacceptable when the two levels involved are Wales and local authorities. It suggests an axiomatic approach, based on the notion that there is a ‘right’ level at which decisions should be made.
I can understand how difficult it is for the UK Government to stand aside and watch Wales (Scotland, Northern Ireland) doing things in ways which they find anathematic. But we expect them to do precisely that, and to respect our right to adopt a different policy. Why should we not expect exactly the same of the Welsh Government when it comes to local councils?