Attacking that culture of high pay is undoubtedly popular amongst the public at large. I’m still uneasy, though, about the unholy alliance of the Tories, Lib Dems, and Plaid getting together to demand that the Welsh Government acts to bring senior pay in our local authorities under control. I'm not even certain that what they're proposing will work - who's to say that the proposed 'independent panel' won't simply recommend even higher salaries? History and experience suggest that it will be stuffed with people who are, or have been, part of the system themselves.
I suspect that one argument put forward by defenders of the current system – that this will lead to legal disputes – is just hot air, and can fairly safely be ignored. After all, the law, in this case, is whatever the National Assembly says it is. Their question about why local government is being singled out for special attention is a rather better one – why indeed are the same arguments not being applied in the Health Service, where those employed are in any case more directly the responsibility of the Welsh Government?
Indeed, why restrict the assault on senior pay to the public sector? I would personally be much more willing to accept a blanket piece of legislation restricting the pay of those at the top to a fixed multiple of the pay of those at the bottom – and I’d consider that it would be much more properly the preserve of government to make such provision. (The Welsh Government doesn’t currently have the power to do that of course – but I don’t even hear them arguing for it.)
That isn’t the cause of my unease either, however. It’s more the ideological question about what power and sovereignty are, and where they come from, which leaves me uneasy.
It’s clear that, for all four of the centralist parties in the Assembly, power resides with them, and local government is there to do as they say, and within any directives which they lay down. Pay is just the tip of the iceberg in this context. I may agree with them about the unacceptability of the outcome of current arrangements – i.e. excessive pay – but I start from a different place.
Local government has its own democratic mandate, and if we were serious about devolution and decentralisation within Wales, we’d be giving local government more powers, not taking them away or constraining them. Whilst there’s scope for a lot more discussion about what we want local government to do and how we want to structure it, that’s not the discussion that’s being had. And instead of opening out that debate, the Government is simply acting in a piecemeal fashion to constrain and limit powers as and when it sees fit.
I have argued in the past that, if we’re dissatisfied with any aspect of the performance of the Welsh Government and the National Assembly, the right approach is not to abolish them, but to change the people and the policies. I’d argue the same way about our local authorities. I wonder how many AMs would argue that the solution to any problem at Assembly level is for the UK Government to legislate to constrain the powers of the Assembly. But isn’t that exactly what they themselves are saying in relation to local government?