As ever, it’s hard to distinguish the hard truth amongst the spin and invective, let alone work out whether anything will really change as a result. It does appear that Plaid has gained agreement from Labour on only one real issue, and that’s the question of timing. Even if the bill is passed, nothing can now happen until after next May’s Assembly elections. To dismiss that as a complete sell-out is a little unfair, but that’s not the same as saying that it’s a major gain. Since no-one really expects any party other than Labour to be leading the next Welsh Government, and the bill will already be an act by the time that government takes office, it means that the legislative framework for Labour to plough ahead with this will be in place well in advance.
Any changes to Labour’s proposals will now come about only if Labour does not gain an absolute majority; and will then be a result of horse-trading between parties. Perhaps the optimism of the opposition parties about denying Labour a majority is justified, perhaps not. In the first case, it means that there is some possibility of change after the event, in the second, it means that the changes have merely been delayed by a few months.
But one of the other points about Plaid’s statement struck me as rather more significant. What exactly is the party’s vision for local government in Wales? According to Leanne Wood’s statement, Plaid’s vision is now about “retaining the existing 22 Local Authorities making them work together as combined regional authorities”. I’m not convinced that that is very different in its effect from the centralising agenda of Labour.
In the first place, there’s something deeply conservative, small c, about simply retaining the existing structure of 22 councils, which was something of an arbitrary creation in the first place. Just as Labour seem to have a fixed idea about the right number being smaller than 22, Plaid’s proposal seems to start from a fixed idea that whatever currently exists is the right number, they just need to be forced to work differently. I really don’t know what the ‘right’ number is – for me the question starts by asking what the role of local government is rather than what the boundaries should be. That’s a question which none of the parties are asking, except by default – and that ‘default’ is effectively that they’re there to do whatever central government tells them to do.
And that’s the part which really disappoints me more than the innate conservatism of sticking to 22, and more than whether any deals done in Cardiff Bay are worthwhile or not. Because this is centralism pretending to be support for local democracy. There is no vision coming from any of the parties about meaningful internal devolution within Wales to strong local government which has its own democratic mandate through the election of councillors; all of them are simply looking at which structures will enable the most efficient implementation of national policy.
It’s a long way from the internal discussions that I remember in the 1970s about empowering local government.