Monday 1 August 2011

Towards better local government

There has been a great deal of comment on other blogs over the weekend  about the case of my fellow blogger Caebrwyn who was arrested for filming a few minutes of a public meeting of Carmarthenshire County Council.

The debate was sparked by a response from Mark James, chief executive of the county council, to an open letter written by another blogger who writes under the name Madaxeman. The two letters can be found here.

Mr James's reply has been commented on at length both on Caebrwyn's own blog here and in an excellent analysis written by another fellow blogger, the Photon, here.

There can be no doubt that Mr James has succeeded in muddying the waters by concentrating his fire on what he sees as Caebrwyn's motives, even going so far as to make allegations about the conduct of Caebrwyn's family, which would presumably include at least one child still at school.

On the subject of filming itself, he has comparitively little to say, except that he is "agnostic" as to whether the council should provide webcasts of its meetings, and to reveal that the issue has been the subject of a lot of discussion behind closed doors.

With accusations and counter-accusations flying, it remains to be seen what will happen in the Caebrwyn case, but it is very sad and disturbing to see the head of an arm of local government descending into the gutter in this way.

So this would seem a good time to remind ourselves of the principles at the heart of this matter, and to separate those from the specifics of the dispute between Caebrwyn and Mark James.

In common with all local authorities, Carmarthenshire County Council is responsible for a very wide range of services and policies which affect every single one of us, including education, social care, planning, roads, trading standards, public health, waste and very many aspects of the environment and community life. It also bears a huge responsibility for the Welsh language, since Carmarthenshire has the largest number of Welsh speakers in Wales and also acts as a bridge between the Welsh speaking heartlands in the north and centre of Wales and the old county of Glamorganshire. Moreover, the council is a major landowner in its own right, and presides over a huge budget.

Also in common with other councils the length and breadth of Wales, the political element of the council (i.e. the councillors themselves) is dominated by a phalanx of men in their sixties and seventies. Some of these have a long and distinguished record of service to the community and work hard on behalf of the people they represent; others are past their sell-by date but cling on to membership of what often resembles a 5 star day club; and yet others should never have become councillors in the first place.

It is sometimes said that in any organisation, people rise to the level of their own incompetence, and looking at some of the senior councillors in charge of important portfolios, it is hard to escape the conclusion that it was their inability which got them to the top. While you have a compliant and biddable old monkey fronting the show, the organ grinder can call the shots, unseen and unaccountable.

Anyone who has been to a public meeting or read the minutes of any of the various committees will know that major decisions are often taken with minimal discussion; questions are not asked or go unanswered; much of the detail of the reports the councillors are asked to consider is couched in language many of them do not understand, even assuming that they all bother to read the information before they vote it through.

A good indication of the approach some councillors take is the language question. English dominates in the chamber, but in an average meeting perhaps 20-25% of the comments and questions are in Welsh. The non-Welsh speakers are provided with headphones so that they can hear a simultaneous translation, but many observers will have seen councillors and officers who do not speak Welsh sitting with their headphones on their laps or even removing them when an opposition councillor speaks.

If you want to try to get your message across, don't speak Welsh.

And that is why filming and opening up our councils to scrutiny are so important. Webcasts of meetings may not attract huge audiences, but at least they give many more people an opportunity to see what is happening in their councils. And the knowledge that more people are watching and taking an interest will eventually bring about change. The good councillors will have nothing to fear; the lazy ones are more likely to be found out. The hypocrites and liars who say one thing to their electors and do another in the safety of County Hall may find themselves called to account.

With more transparency and more public involvement, it is possible that we can bring about a democratic renewal of local government, thinning out the dead wood and even reverse the trend and wrestle powers back from unelected officials.

The question is whether Carmarthenshire and other councils have the guts to kick start a process which will eventually lead to better local government.


Photon said...

The reality is that most committees are like this: minimal discussion, voting through anything the Chair suggests. It is a disease of the committee way of doing things. That needs to be recognised.

Of course, we could conclude that the very reason there is so much resistance in some quarters is because we could indeed then see the kind of woefully dated, machoistic approach to running the show that we saw glimpses of in Caebrwyn's video.

Face it: a lot of people in public office prefer we don't see - and therefore don't know - what goes on. That is the culture that needs challenging.

Anonymous said...

Well said. Youv've summed up beautifully, everything that's wrong with Carmarthen Council. It's a great pity that it's all negative. My experiences with this council over seven years, have been just that, all negative.