Friday, 1 November 2013

Agreeing with the opposition 1

There were two stories in yesterday’s Western Mail which found me agreeing with the basic points being made by two politicians with whom I’d normally disagree on most things.

The first story was the one about the ‘leaked’ letter (experience tells me that for journalists, ‘leak’ can, and frequently does, cover a multitude of sins) from Cllr Hedley McCarthy to ‘party colleagues across Wales’ (a phrase which suggests that the letter finding its way into the public eye can hardly have come as a surprise to the author, given the singularly unfraternal relationships which exist between members of the Labour Party).
There seems to be a lot of general whingeing in the letter – typical internal Labour Party stuff – and the Western Mail seized on it as a sign of a ‘split’.  There seems to be little that the paper likes more than a ‘split’, and the more personal the better.  No surprise that some political opponents leapt onto the ‘split’ bandwagon; it’s a lot less taxing to debate at that level than to engage with the nub of the argument.
None of that was the bit that led me to find myself in agreement with the councillor.  It was rather the nugget at the heart of his argument - almost lost in the coverage of the froth - that the idea that small councils cannot deliver services “…is theoretical and not backed up by any serious evidence”.  This is a very significant point, which I have no doubt that the four centralist parties in the Assembly will completely ignore.  They have already decided that size, or rather lack of size, is the problem.
It is true, of course, that the councils suffering the biggest problems at present are smaller ones; but that’s correlation, not proof of causation.  It could just be that the councillors and officers in those councils happen to be less competent (although I suspect that Cllr McCarthy and I might disagree on that!).  It might even be, as Cllr McCarthy himself seems to half suggest, that the basis used by the Minister for determining ‘failure’ was itself rigged to favour the result that he wanted.
But here’s the real point which those rushing to centralise and consolidate councils are missing: if there’s no hard evidence that the small size of some councils is the problem, there is equally no hard evidence that amalgamating them into larger councils is the solution.  That it is the solution to some problem or other is not in doubt of course – but the problems which it solves are more to do with a populist attempt to cull the number of politicians, and a rather less open and honest attempt to strengthen the control of the centre.
I’m not opposed to reform or re-organisation of local government; on the contrary, I think we need a root and branch review of what powers local government should have, and form and size should flow from that.  To be worthwhile, local government needs to have clearly defined powers and be left to exercise them.  That isn’t what we are getting though – we are getting a process which simply implements the already formed prejudices of centralising politicians who are accreting power into their own hands.
The surprise is not that one Labour councillor from Gwent is expressing his opposition; it’s the fact that he seems so isolated.


Cibwr said...

He is quite right, the 1960's local government commission for Wales interim report makes fascinating reading about the capacity of certain councils to do things. Praising Anglesey County Council for progressive policies and damming Denbighshire for inefficiency (an education committee of 105 members for example). However I think your basic premiss is right. I have come to the conclusion we need two tiers plus the community councils. Democratise the joint boards and nominated bodies under new directly elected regional authorities and return to district councils below them. Give real powers of tax raising and decision making to local government with central government money acting as an equalisation grant.

Glyn Erasmus said...

A friend of mine, with a better political brain than I, believes that the best size of a controlling authority varies with the subject that needs controlling. So no geographical solution is likely to be correct. Maybe 5 areas for waste or transport, 10 for planning and forty for education. (Just for arguments sake)

John Dixon said...


Exactly the point. Start from what decisions can and should be made at a level (or levels) more local than the national, and build structures around that. Instead of which we have a closed mindset - even from those claiming to be devolutionists - which is effectively arguing that 'bigger is always better'.

David Walters said...

That was surely the reason for two-tier local government - some big things, some little