Wednesday, 21 October 2015

More centralism

There has been mixed reaction to the about turn by Plaid Cymru yesterday, in deciding to back Labour’s bill on local government reform after all. The Tories' simplistic approach is to slam Plaid for criticising Labour on the issue just a few days ago, and then supporting them yesterday.  Whether that’s a far criticism or not depends on what, if anything, changed in the interim.  The Lib Dems’ spokesman, Peter Black, claims that Plaid got nothing at all in return for their change of heart, whereas Plaid claims major concessions.
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.

5 comments:

green dragon said...

"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" - very difficult to argue with that sobering assessment.

More than that a little discussed matter in post devolution wales is that local government has no 'protection' from central government in the senedd.It means a welsh government can abolish a welsh local authority with the same ease the thatcher regime abolished the GLC - which surely cannot be right? And is certainly not what those of us who trudged the streets over the years pushing 'yes' leaflets into sometimes ungrateful hands would have wanted.

Anonymous said...

Quite agree.

Isn't about time we abolished all local councils and just had the Welsh Assembly as the local council for all Wales. Everything statutory could be run from Cardiff and anything requiring a more local approach, in effect all the non-statutory stuff, should be farmed out to local private companies in each locality.

Efficient. Effective. And local when and where truly local is warranted.

John Dixon said...

Green dragon: I share your concerns. And I also feel some unease that the centralisation within Wales isn't quite what those of us who campaigned for devolution were expecting to happen.

Anon: I have a lot of sympathy with the view that services which are rigidly controlled by statute and expected to reach common standards across Wales might as well be controlled centrally rather than maintaining a pretence that local democracy has any influence on them. However, the question that that raises is which issues should be subject to such statutory control. It's fairly easy to identify which ones are currently so controlled, but that's in a context where the centre has simply been aggregating power to itself. Deciding whether things should be that way is much harder - there are those of us who'd like to see much less statutory central control and much more local decision-making. But that goes back to the question of deciding what local government is for before deciding how many units there should be let alone what the geographical boundaries should be.

Anonymous said...

So retaining 22 local authorities but grouping them in combinations (Plaid) is 'centralism', and merging them to 8 or 9 (Labour) is also 'centralism'. But you're also critical of 22 being an arbitrary number.

You don't actually provide an alternative John. Not being unfair as you admit that the question that needs to be asked is where services should be provided, and what the role of local government should be. Plaid Cymru saying that the role should be to provide regional government within Wales *is* decentralist away from Cardiff. But it's all arguable and debatable.

As things stand Plaid Cymru has gotten closer than the other opposition parties in influencing what Labour may or may not do with local government reform. Getting any further influence though would have to involve weakening or even replacing Labour at elections, which is another challenge entirely.

John Dixon said...

Anon,

No I don't provide an alternative, you're right. But you're also right about the reason, which is that deciding the number and boundaries without first agreeing what they're for is putting the cart before the horse. I'm not committed to a particular number, nor a particular set of powers. And yes, everything is debatable and arguable it's just that the argument for allowing local difference - including differences in performance and priority if that's what people want - is simply not being put; all we're seeing is politicians of all parties debating what is the most efficient way of delivering national policy and forcing local compliance with standards.

But in essence, I'd argue that there is little value in keeping any local authority input in any area of policy where they are simply administering; if they have no policy input, what is the purpose of a political election process? And on some of the non-statutory areas of policy, such as leisure, why can't the control be even more local? Why the obsession with a single level of local government with all services being coterminous? These questions are entirely in line with policies espoused by Plaid for decades before the establishment of the Assembly; but since 1999, the party has become increasingly centralist in its outlook within Wales.

"As things stand Plaid Cymru has gotten closer than the other opposition parties in influencing what Labour may or may not do with local government reform". I'm not at all convinced by that spin. And part of the point of the original post is that Plaid's policy actually looks very similar to Labour's in its effect; it's just a different way of achieving it. And since it seems to involve indirect elections to the regional boards and panels, it has the potential to be even less transparent and democratic.