Thursday 25 August 2011

Welsh councils - the vultures come home to roost

First it was Angelsey, then it was Pembrokeshire, and now Blaenau Gwent. The commissioners have not been sent into Pembrokeshire yet, but as Caebrwyn reports, the war of words between Leighton Andrews, Minister for Education, and the hapless council leader, John Davies, is hotting up. Meanwhile, the first shock troops have already gone into Blaenau Gwent (see the Photon for details).

Pembrokeshire illustrates well what is wrong with so much of our local government in Wales. The council is dominated by Independent councillors who have delegated most of their powers to a very powerful chief executive; in this case Bryn Parry Jones, who has been busy keeping his head down in the slanging match between John Davies and Leighton Andrews. Interestingly, one of the excuses offered by Mr Davies for his council's failings was that so many of the council's powers and responsibilities had been delegated to non-elected officials.

Carmarthenshire's constitution is a very good example of the way this works. Huge swathes of powers and responsibilities have been delegated to the chief executive, who also decides what can and cannot be discussed in the council chamber.

As in so many other parts of Wales, the Independents are an old boy network (with a few old girls thrown in these days). We all know the type. Typically aged between 65 and 80, their ranks are made up for the most part of retired businessmen, well-to-do farmers, retired police officers, Freemasons and the like. Many of them are returned unopposed at elections, and so what you get is a self-perpetuating oligarchy which looks after itself and the interests of its friends. To be fair, there are some good Independent councillors, but the key question is, how do you become an Independent?

Just as no one is born wearing grey slacks and a blue blazer, nobody grows up thinking, "I am an Independent with a capital I". Like the secret service, the magistracy, the masons and other hallowed institutions, you do not apply to join. You are "approached".

As an Independent councillor, you will from time to time be asked to appoint a chief executive, who then knows that provided he keeps his trousers up and his hands out of the till, his job is safe as long as the Independents retain political control. The chief executive then appoints his own team of senior officers, and the appointments are rubber-stamped by the councillors. The chief executive and his client officers can then get on with running the council, safe in the knowledge that nobody is going to ask awkward questions or rock the boat provided that the outside world can be convinced that the ship is running smoothly. Hence the need for a strong and ultra-loyal PR team. Any cock-ups or unfortunate failures can usually be discreetly dealt with behind closed doors.

So while we all applaud the brave protesters in Arab countries who are fighting to end one-party rule and bring down the oligarchs, here in Wales we ignore the perpetual one-party states which are our county councils.

That is not to say that councillors who belong to political parties are always good; there are some bad and mediocre examples wherever you look. But, with the exception of the Conservative Party, the mainstream political parties are open and democratic. There are also some (not many) genuine independents to choose from as well.

So tempting as it is to place all the blame on councillors and over-mighty council officers, we the electorate must also shoulder a lot of responsibility for councils which fail our children, the elderly and others. Local democracy should mean that all councillors have to fight for re-election every four years, and that we see administrations being kicked out of office a lot more often than is the case now. If John Davies and Bryn Parry Jones knew that there was a real risk that the voters might send them packing, it is unlikely that Pembrokeshire would find itself in the mess it is in now.


caebrwyn said...

Excellent. This is exactly the 'way things work' and there is nothing I can add.
Let's hope the electorate of Carmarthenshire read it.

Plaid Gwersyllt said...

There are 3 Independent Groups on Wrecsam Council so as to ensure that the ambitious ones get a seat on the Executive Board!! Tories in Disguise is another name for Indys in North Wales.

Anonymous said...

Elections next May, I hope many more candidates will stand for election as councillors. At the very least, we need more probing media reports into local government, to build on the good work done by bloggers.

Cneifiwr said...

There are 29 Indys in Carmarthen and not one Tory, which sort of gives the game away.

Photon said...

And that's the reason why most sensible people don't want to get involved in local politics. Many want to serve, hardly anyone wants to get bogged-down in "the politics of the playground."

That's good news for the incumbent councillors.

Jeremy Clulow said...

I couldn't agree more. A spot-on thumbnail of the root of the problem.