Monday 30 April 2012

Keeping it local

The Western Mail devoted a large part of two pages on Friday to an editorial by its Chief Reporter proclaiming that the key question in this week’s council elections is the value for money which councils provide in the delivery of services.  It’s hard to disagree with the assertion that we want value for money in local services; it’s motherhood and apple pie stuff.  But is it really the main issue for local councils?
The problem for me is that it starts from unstated but implicit assumptions about what local government is for, and about how its objectives are set.  But those assumptions owe little to the concept of meaningful local democracy; they owe more to a centralist view of local councils as being primarily deliverers of services, the nature and standard of which is defined by central (in this context, Welsh) government.  Their power, in short, is derived by delegation from the centre, like their funding.
It brings me back to a point about which I’ve blogged many times before; if local democracy is to be meaningful, then it must allow the possibility of making alternative policy choices about the nature and standard of services provided.  In short, we either have meaningful local government, where councils are allowed to define their own services and obliged to raise the whole of the money needed to pay for them (with central influence restricted to a mechanism for ensuring a degree of redistribution of resources from richer areas to poorer ones), or else we should abandon any pretence that we have a meaningful local democracy and run the services centrally.  (And different ‘services’ might fall into different categories here.)
It’s a simple enough argument.  Meaningful devolution of power from level A to level B includes the possibility that level B will do things in a way of which level A would not approve.  As anyone in a large organisation would – or should – recognise, delegation of authority includes the authority to do things differently - and even to make 'mistakes'.
What surprises me is the way in which people can easily grasp that concept when the two levels involved are the UK and Wales, but regard it as alien and unacceptable when the two levels involved are Wales and local authorities.  It suggests an axiomatic approach, based on the notion that there is a ‘right’ level at which decisions should be made.
I can understand how difficult it is for the UK Government to stand aside and watch Wales (Scotland, Northern Ireland) doing things in ways which they find anathematic.  But we expect them to do precisely that, and to respect our right to adopt a different policy.  Why should we not expect exactly the same of the Welsh Government when it comes to local councils?


Glyndo said...

It’s pretty simple John. Each layer of government sets the parameters within which lower levels of government can act. At lower levels the people elect the representatives that they feel will best work within those parameters. I don’t see how it can be any other way? As I’ve said before, localism means people make selfish decisions without regard to the greater good. Unfortunately somebody has to put up with the sewage farms and incinerators.

John Dixon said...


A very 'British' perspective, if I may say so, in which 'lower' levels of government are subordinate to 'higher' levels. God gives all power to the monarch, who graciously shares it with the UK Parliament, which reluctantly allows the National Assembly to exercise restricted powers in some areas, including the right to control and manage what decisions may be taken by local councils.

How can it be another way? Easy, in theory at least. What if we start from an assumption that power belongs to us, not God and the monarch, and we can decide where it should be exercised? What about the concept that each level of government has its own democratic mandate?

I understand your point about sewage farms and incinerators, and have argued before that localism is not as simple an option as it is sometimes made to seem. But under your argument that unpopular decisions about locating things are best decided by a central government outside the control of local electors, why devolve anything from Westminster?

neil said...

didn't Dafydd Wigley always say that power devolved is power retained ?

So devolve power, but only on very limited terms and restrictive frameworks.

Glyndo said...

"God gives all power to the monarch, who graciously shares it with the UK Parliament"

How the heck did you get those two into the discussion? Come on John mine was a general point, with no reference whatsoever to the British state. The same rules would apply in an independent Wales. Even a republican one. I am disappointed.

John Dixon said...


The point that I was making, obviously not very well, is that the idea that the competency of 'lower' levels of government is set for them by 'higher' levels of government is a very centralist outlook, akin to that which underpins the UK model of sovereignty. But it isn't the only model. Take away the prism of 'higher' and 'lower', and you're simply left with different bodies each performing different functions. Why should the democratic mandate of any one of those be subject to the whim of another? Think states and federal in America, or cantons and confederal in Switzerland. They are both underpinned, to different extents, by the idea of a separate but equally valid democratic mandate, rather than the idea of a hierarchy. Your comments - both of them - seem to be based on an assumption that hbierarchy is the natural order. I challenge that.

mairede thomas said...

The national Government makes decisions and policy in the national interest, the local government makes decisions and policy in the local interest.

Sometimes those interests conflict, sometimes they are complementary.

When they conflict the mandated representatives each have to reason their point, and attempt to reach an agreed position or solution. Otherwise the higher authority can pull rank. That's why electors get a chance to elected both local and national Government representatives.

National Government is often grateful for the local knowledge and expertise that Local Government has, and Local Government is often grateful for the larger knowledge base and resources that national Government has.

I don't think it's correct to characterize local decision making as selfish. Local decisions may be taken in the light of self-interest but that is not necessarily a bad thing or a bad decision.

Glyndo said...

"is that the idea that the competency of 'lower' levels of government is set for them by 'higher' levels of government is a very centralist outlook"

It's not the competency which is set, but the limits. If a group of people chose to live together, and call themselves a group, there has to be a "centralist" dimension. Anything else is anarchy.
I think your examples of the USA and Switzerland are flawed, of course there is a heirachy. I know less about the Swiss set up than the USA, but, if you don't believe the USA exerts control from the centre then how do you explain that little fracas in the 1860s? How do you explain the federal interventions during the civil rights movement. The States may have local powers, but only those allowed to them by the constituon. A constitution agreed at the centre. We can dicuss what should be the "centre" but the fact is that there will always be a "centre" which will have to make decisions binding on all. I don't know about you, but I don't fancy a Wales made up of City or even in our case Village states. Even then there will be a centre of the "village", you can see it in operation in "local" government.

Anonymous said...

I understand what Glyndo is getting at. Although he is wrong to say "Each layer of government sets the parameters within which lower levels of government can act". Actually central or "high" government sets the parameters.

There is an argument though that says centralism in a theoretical Welsh state wouldn't be as bad because we're so small. There wouldn't be a logical need for regional or provincial government, for example.

There is a big risk of selfishness, individualism and parochialism setting in at the lower levels of society. Dare I say it though that the current set up we have in Wales isn't that bad?

Spirit of BME said...

Glydo`s comment about the US difficulty with the War of Northern Aggression in the 1860`s did not come from the centre exercising its right but from an absence of clarity in the powers of the Constitution on the collection of taxes. The same was true about what happened in the civil rights issue, which was about a dispute as to who was in control of transporting children (of all colours) to Federal funded schools.
Having dealt with rows over taxation between what States levy and what Federal obligations are under International Treaty , the position is now more clear – if Federal Law is silent then State rights are protected ,to change that Washington would have to raise and pass a new law striking down the States rights – not easy.

John Dixon said...


I agree with both you and Glyndo that, as a statement of fact, "central or 'high' government sets the parameters". That is the way that things work today, and have for a long time.

What I'm challenging is whether things have to be that way. It's a long-running theme of mine that creating a new Welsh democracy doesn't have to simply ape the Westminster model. I accept that I'm being quite deliberately provocative, but why should 'sovereignty' be assumed to be something which resides at the 'centre' or 'high' level? Why can't local democracy have its own inbuilt rights, based on the democratic mandate of those elected to run local authorities?

Such a viewpoint is not without its difficulties, and I don't pretend that it is. And it might even be, as I suggested in the original post, that we need to look again at what functions local government performs and how we decide where to allocate responsibilities. But my basic point is this - once we have decided, by whatever means, that certain functions are the repsonsibility of local government, why should the exercise of those functions not be answerable solely to the electors concerned, with no furtehr interference from the 'centre'?

Anonymous said...

From an engineering point of view the best way to maintain the highways infrastructure is to have a 5 or 10 year plan of maintenance and augmentation. Strangely, I recently had a pre-election bulletin from RCT council about road maintenance, which included details of road re-surfacing in the area which even went into detail about which street in wards which the Labour are trying to cling onto. As one local resident commented, "They're putting chippings down in the rain, there must be an election on". This was compounded by a press release from Labour saying Plaid and the LibDems voted against road repairs last year (in fact they voted against the whole budget in the hope of putting an alternative). This raises serious questions on the way in which party politics can be detrimental to the blindingly obvious requirement that there is an 'optimum' point in time to repair a road surface, not too soon as that would be a waste of money, and soon enough so that damage does not become too expensive to repair. This optimum point in time rarely occurs just when the local elections are on. This is not a feature of work of Wales wide major trunk roads where larger investments take many years of planning and preparation work, preventing individual projects becoming an immediate hustings issue.