Plaid Cymru launched its manifesto for the county council elections yesterday. The document can be found here, and it makes for interesting reading.
A sad fact is, of course, that very few voters take the time to read any political manifesto, but this document sets out an agenda which would mean a fresh start for the county and a council with a much more human face than the one we have grown accustomed to.
To begin with, it promises that a Plaid majority would seek to be inclusive and offer the most talented and experienced councillors from all political groups a role in the new administration. Talented is a subjective term, but in the interests of the county and the people served by the council, let's hope that the deep personal divisions which have separated some councillors from the Plaid leadership can be set aside, and while there are obvious attractions to a broad-based administration of this kind, one of the lessons which has to be learned is the need for much more active scrutiny and questioning of council policies and decisions. Too often debate has been stifled and dissent silenced by dubious manipulation of procedures.
Plaid is promising a more transparent council, and it would allow filming and recording of council meetings. It would abolish the disgraceful Carmarthenshire News propaganda sheet. Great.
Although the manifesto does not say so, the deeply ingrained culture of secrecy needs to be challenged head on. There must be far fewer exempt items in future, and council officers should be instructed to make a presumption in favour of publication and openness. All too frequently, the response the public gets when seeking information is that if the council is not legally obliged to publish something, it will not publish. Turn that on its head and publish everything except what the law prohibits.
On education the manifesto would lead to a significant change of emphasis in the Modernising Education Programme, which has been used as a bulldozer to shut schools. Creating a formal mechanism which actively involves parents, staff, governors and local people in such decisions in future is a huge step forward, as is the undertaking to promote Welsh-medium education.
One of the areas in which the current Plaid group can hold its head high is in planning, where it has emphasised the importance of local opinion and wishes. Time and again controversial plans have been railroaded through on the block votes of Labour and Independent councillors who sometimes live as far as it is possible to get in Carmarthenshire from the communities affected. Great therefore to see that Plaid intends to continue with this policy.
The manifesto says that Plaid would seek to prune the council's huge portfolio of properties and capital assets. As we know, many of these have been the pet projects of the Gravell-James regime, and far too many are now a constant drain on the council's resources.
Senior officers will also be sleeping less well when they read the manifesto, and Plaid clearly intends to thin their ranks. It also promises to ensure that all appointments to positions earning more than £50,000 a year have to be approved by elected councillors. As we know, the chief executive has found ways in the past of bringing in proteges to very highly paid senior positions with no democratic scrutiny.
That would mean amending the council's constitution, and let's hope that a Plaid-led administration would take the opportunity to close all of the various loopholes which have been so successfully exploited by the current ruling elite to undermine democracy, stifle opposition and reserve decision making to a small handful of people.
One area of weakness in the manifesto is the lack of a more coherent policy on the language. True, it reaffirms the importance of the Mentrau Iaith, and it makes commitments to increasing Welsh-medium education, but what is needed is a much more radical language plan which would link the council with all of the various bodies which seek to promote and expand the use of Welsh in Carmarthenshire. The current plan is inward-looking, and there are obvious limits to what the council can do on its own. We need to be much more ambitious.
Of course there are huge financial restraints on all councils, and there are myriads of policies and externally imposed rules which limit all councils' freedom of movement, but within those constraints this document is imaginative, and it addresses so many of the concerns and problems people have had with this council directly and honestly.
How good for once to see a political document which does all this and, for the most part, avoids the empty platitudes we are normally fed with.