Thursday 27 February 2014

More centralisation and quangoes

When I served on a planning committee back in the 1980s, no one batted an eyelid at the idea that I could talk to voters in my ward, ascertain their views, declare in advance that I’d support them, and then go along to a meeting and argue the case on their behalf.  It was sometimes difficult to find out what people thought – opinions were often divided – but representing the views of electors was part of what I thought I was there to do.
It was just after I’d retired as a councillor in 1991 that the new law was implemented turning the planning process into a quasi-judicial one, where any views expressed in advance were held to be prejudicial and to exclude the councillors concerned from speaking of voting on the issue.  It was a part of the then Conservative Government’s policy aimed at emasculating local councils in the interest of promoting development - as if the Town & Country Planning Acts weren’t already sufficiently biased in favour of developers.
Coupled with formal timescales for determining applications, the result was pretty inevitable.  More and more decisions were delegated to officers, and there was less and less room for local democratic expression.
It looks as though Labour in Cardiff are about to complete the process started by the Tories in London, taking further responsibilities away from councillors and giving them either to council officers or else to an arm of central government.
Coupled with a proposal to give the unelected local service boards power to draw up strategic development plans which will sit above the plans drawn up by local councils, it’s another huge shift of power away from elected bodies and into the hands of appointees.  When Labour pretended to be against this sort of thing in the past, they called them quangos.
It also underlines once again the disjointed and incoherent approach to local government which was also well demonstrated in the appointment of the Williams commission.  The government and the Labour Party still haven’t decided what they think local government is for, let alone what powers it should have.
What is the point of local councils – supposedly run by elected members – having a planning function at all if the plans are set elsewhere, along with all the rules for determining applications?  Why not just be honest and have a single national planning authority with a few regional offices?  That would seem to be the direction of travel for Welsh Labour.

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