Monday 4 July 2011

What does Wales want from its councils?

Caebrwyn's campaign to persuade councils to open up and either allow filming or produce their own streaming video of council meetings seems to be getting some traction, as you can see here. But that is just a start to the reforms we need.

There is just under a year to go before all 22 of our county and county borough councils come up for re-election, so now is a good time to start thinking about what we would like from their town halls over the next few years, because election time is the only time many of our councillors listen to what people have to say.

Being able to view council meetings on-line in your own time is probably not the top of most people's Christmas wishlists, but of course the principles at stake go far deeper and touch the heart of local democracy; it's all about transparency and openness and encouraging greater public participation in local government.

The sad truth is that voter turnouts at local elections are low, and very many community councils are returned unopposed because not enough candidates are willing to stand. And we all know that there is deep cynicism and disillusion among the public with the whole process. Like it or not, perceptions that there is endemic corruption in local government, that this or that issue is a "done deal" and all opposition therefore futile, or that freemasons dominate our councils are commonplace. The best cure for that, as an American politician once said, is to let the sunlight in. The more transparency and the more involvement people have in their councils, the harder it will be for corruption and back-scratching to thrive.

But what else do we want? Putting purely local issues and party politics to one side, what else would we like to see in the manifestos across Wales? Here are a few random thoughts.

Council "newspapers". There may be some genuinely good ones out there, but some are nothing more than propaganda sheets which would have us believe that everything is getting better and better under the wise stewardship of councillors XYZ and chief executive Bloggs. Either scrap them or have a code of conduct which ensures that we get real, unbiased information, not pictures of grinning council leaders and chief executives planting trees, cutting ribbons and handing out awards.

What about the age, sex, calibre of people who stand for election? There appear to be some Welsh councils with people under the age of 65 and even women serving as councillors, but others where the average age is probably about 72 and men outnumber women by about 10:1. Wouldn't it be great to have councils which came just a little closer to representing the communities they come from, with a healthy cross-section of ages and social backgrounds and a good many more women?

How about a code of conduct which obliges senior council officers and councillors with executive responsibilities to have an open-door policy? Scandinavia famously has bicycling monarchies, but all too many of our town hall barons shun contact with the public and are whisked around in limos (at least in Carmarthenshire). So let's put them under an obligation to meet individuals or groups who want to talk to them, and let's make them get out of county hall every couple of months to listen and explain. Even some county councillors complain that it is hard to get meetings with the top brass.

Sharing services. There has been much talk of the financial benefits of pooling resources between councils, and you have to wonder if Wales really needs 22 chief executives, deputy chief executives, and heads of this and that. There is also a growing consensus that 22 local authorities plus 3 National Park authorities is, to put it mildly, massive overkill with a huge duplication of effort. But it goes further than that. As I look out of my window, I can almost touch Ceredigion, and the nearest council tip is only about 11 miles from me. But I am not allowed to use it and have to travel twice that distance to a tip on the other side of Carmarthen if I want to get rid of bulky household waste. Time and again we are told that projects which involve cross-border cooperation are a non-starter because of the bureaucracy. Not only is this wasteful, but it is damaging communities, and with 25 different authorities, there must be a lot of people affected by boundary nonsense.

Planning. How much scope there is for modernisation of the planning system without root and branch reform coming from the Welsh Government is open to question, but councils do have some leeway. Perhaps one thing which could be changed at a local level is the way in which major planning applications are handled. There should be mandatory and structured consultation with local communities as a part of the process; at present, this is entirely voluntary.

The list could, and should, go on, and these are just a few ideas.I hope that other Welsh bloggers will take up this theme over the coming weeks and months so that we can create a dialogue across the country and give feedback to the parties, councils and individual councillors. So, bloggers and blog readers of Wales unite! What do you think?


Photon said...

Certainly an interesting theme to develop. Councils have never been under such public scrutiny as presently, and 2011 onwards is likely to see even more as further, deeper cuts are brought in.

The potential for services to become poor, scandals to develop and further disillusionment with local authorities is clear.

Marianne said...

Thank you so much for your fantastic article. Why there is so much "apathy" in local communities with regard to either voting or standing at local elections, I simply do not know. What I have learned though over the years, that rural Wales especially has been ruled and still is ruled on local level by the "farming" county councillors; they owe the land, they know other farmers and they which strings to pull to get their way. The other string that seems to pull them is Local Authority with their "policy" of "you do as we command"! Let's hope we will have a good turnout at the elections, a good and healthy debate on ground level with the voters and more importantly.....some very good ears and NO FALSE PROMISES! Great article and thank you once again.