Tuesday 23 February 2010

Local Democracy

A few different things have come together recently to make me wonder what county councils are for, and what they are achieving.

The first has been the repeated suggestion that Wales has 'too many' councils and that we will need to rationalise the number. It's most often accompanied by a claim that Wales cannot afford 22 Directors of (insert Education, Social Services, or whatever here). The argument feels right, but is not generally accompanied by much light about what the 'right' number is, or how we arrive at that magic number.

The second has been the increasing regulation and drive for standardisation of services across councils, often presented as 'ending the postcode lottery'. The implicit assumption is that there are some services which are 'too important' to allow there to be any variation in quality of provision, or the nature of the provision. (Or in extreme cases some seem to be arguing that we should not even permit a different spend per head).

And the third is the increasing financial pressures on local authorities, all of which are claiming that this year's settlement is the 'tightest ever' (a phrase that I don't think I've heard since last year), and that cash is going to get even tighter in future (with a suitable amount of hype and exaggeration about the likely implications thrown in for good measure). And with something like two-thirds of council funding supplied by the Welsh Government, councils always have a convenient scapegoat to hand.

One consequence of the third factor is that a number of councils are looking to distinguish between the statutory services (which they have to provide), and the non-statutory services (which they do not), and to concentrate their efforts and finances increasingly on the first. Within current legislation, and from the councils' viewpoint, that is a pretty logical decision to be making.

But, if we take a step back a moment, is there a case for standing that logic on its head, and moving to a situation where the councils deal only with the non-statutory services?

After all, the principle of local democracy is that people can exercise local choice, through electing a council, on what level of services they want and are prepared to pay for. And if they want a bit more of one type of service, and a bit less of another, they should be able to choose that.

However, in relation to the statutory services, there is an increasingly diminishing scope for local councils to make those sort of decisions, due to the second factor identified above, namely the drive to increased regulation and standardisation. It is increasingly the case that only in the non-statutory services is there any real scope for differentiation.

What would local government look like if we took all the statutory services away, and ran them under some sort of more central control (which is basically the model of the NHS)?

Firstly, rather than reducing the number of county councils, there could actually be a case for increasing the number and making them more local and accountable.

Secondly, rather than funding them centrally, the remaining services could be funded entirely out of local taxation (either council tax, or Plaid's preferred alternative of a local income tax). Councils would be in a position to raise and spend their income without external control on a range of optional services which local residents could choose either to expand or contract, and be clear of the tax implications in so doing.

It would of course represent a huge degree of centralisation of the management of services like education and social services, but it would be more honest than the creeping centralisation which comes through regulation, defining standards, target-setting, and hypothecated grants.

One of the hardest lessons that I learned when I first moved into a management role is that delegation includes delegating the right to take different decisions and to make mistakes. As far as local government is concerned, I think that we need either to delegate real authority to councils, or else decide that the services are too important to delegate, and manage them properly from the centre. Delegation to people whose hands central government then tie is no delegation at all.

It's a pretty radical suggestion, of course. But we really do need to decide what local councils are for – before we start thinking about how many we need.


Dyfrig said...

I've been working on a paper for the policy unit for over a year now, and hope that Nerys will be presenting a draft to the executive next week. However, I draw some very different conclusions to you, I'm afraid. In my view, greater centralisation is not compatible with Plaid Cymru'r core emphasis on democracy and devolution

John Dixon said...


"I draw some very different conclusions to you"

Possibly; but I think you may have misread me. Insofar as I draw any conclusions at all, my first conclusion is that decentralisation is meaningless unless accompanied by the right to do things differently. We need to decide whether we want meaningful decentralisation, or whether we want uniformity and standards. There is a danger that the only thing that ends up being decentralised is the right to cut services.

I set out to be deliberately provocative, because I see an increasing trend towards centralisation by the Welsh Government. As an example, the transformation agenda in education is being driven by a number of factors, one of which is the Learning and Skills Measure - which imposes yet more standards and limitations on local government.

What I see on a regular basis is councils and councillors spending the vast bulk of their time on matters where their influence is limited because central government has already taken the important decisions - and giving very little time to the issues on which they are actually free to make decisions themselves as a result.

And my second conclusion is that there is a case for concentrating time and effort at local government level on those issues where local councils and councillors can influence outcomes and add value. There are two ways of achieving that, of course. The first is to take away from their 'control' those things over which they have no real control anyway - and the second is to give them back real control.

The position being adopted by many is that we do neither, and instead start tinkering with the number and size of councils. I think that's a diversion from the real question.

Dyfrig said...

It is a huge relief to find that I have, indeed, misread you. My argument (partially) revolves around the issue that you raise. It may be unsurprising to discover that - as a County Councillor myself - I suggest that we move towards greater decentralisation. Personally, I believe that this is a matter of changing the culture in Cardiff Bay. Ministers and their civil servants need to learn to stop micro-managing how services are delivered, and the Local Government minister should be given a wider-ranging brief that allows him or her to scrutinise the way in which the demands of - say - the Education Ministry undermine the ability of Local Government to exercise its democratic mandate.
And now to get all of this down on paper. You will receive my fuller thoughts via Nerys at the next meeting of the National Exec.

DC said...

Being currently involved in a dispute with the County Council, I have come to understand why many people become disillusioned with the whole concept of the the mechanisms of any form of government.

Politicians often complain about the lack of "Buy In" from the public - a lack of interest in what is happening to their affairs.

This is not true.

What is missing is the ability for the average person to be able to do anything about it directly, apart from to protest in various ways, normally at their own expense.

There is not the mechanism for people to effectively get things changed if the Executive has made up its mind to force a policy through.

In effect as soon as you have voted you are disenfranchised for a number of years until you can register your pleasure or displeasure at the next election.

So in effect you have lost all your powers - therefore as you cannot influence decisions easily you lose interest.

This is not new, some would call it democracy, I perhaps would call it benevolent dictatorship.

More interestingly than this however is the link between the Elected Members and the Council Officers that are supposed to do their bidding on behalf of the electorate.

From my observations, and I would have to say that I am a novice at this process so this may be an isolated case, it would appear that the proposals that are put before the Scrutiny Committees are in fact quite complex, are very cleverly written, confusing, uncosted and full of expert obusfacation.

This often makes it virtually impossible for the Councillors to be fully informed of the effects of voting for a proposal.

So my first point would be that this area needs to be standardised so that it is easy to see for any proposal the benefits in costs, the changes and implications of these changes to services, the knock on implications to other related areas etc. and a report on first phase consultation with a cross section of the public who will be affected by these proposals.

I beleive that you need to put in an intermediate layer between the Council Officers and the Councillors to produce this report.

In this way you have a chance for the requests from the Council Officers to be properly reviewed before being put to the Councillors in a clear manner which they could at least fully understand.

One could argue that this will delay the process and add some costs but I suspect that both would be limited in the overall course of events.

At this point already the public have had a greater say than of now.

Yet this is not a radical step and to get back to perhaps the original point that was made, will tinkering around the edges of government have much effect anyway?

Rarely have we used technology to improve the way we govern ourselves but why not?

If politicians want more involvement from the electorate why not allow them to vote on a regular basis via the medium of the Internet or Television.

We don't think of it as strange to vote for a contestant on "X Factor" so why is it beyond reality to allow people to vote as part of a debate which Councillors will have argued for in a Televised forum, via their phones, TVs or Computers?

Obviously constraints would need to be made on how the voting was run (a very important issue) but this is not an impossibility.

Also this is not necessarily that expensive.

In this way local communities could have a greater say on what was done, Councillors would be able to voice their opinions to a larger audience and the Council Officers would implement policy that reflected the wishes of the Community.

It does not do away with the Councillors but does perhaps make them more immediately accountable to the people they represent.

One person, one vote, one Community Decision.

You can of course ramp this up and expand it to higher levels.

We have the technology, we have the brains for the framework but do we have the political will?

I suspect not.