Tuesday 6 March 2012

Peter Black and powers of general competence

Readers of the blog written by Peter Black, Liberal Democrat AM for South Wales West, may have spotted that Cneifiwr has been involved in a mild spat with him over his pontifications on the subject of local government.

It all kicked off when Peter Black launched an attack on the Welsh Government for deciding not to adopt Eric Pickles' plans for local government in England, and in particular for not giving Welsh councils a general power of competence, which essentially means giving councils the power to do whatever they like within the bounds of the law.

Along the way Black gave as an example Eric Pickles' recent decision to include in his localism bill a clause giving councils in England the right to hold prayers as part of their formal proceedings if they so wish, and the focus of the debate then switched to the emotive but rather unimportant subject of the role of religion in council meetings.

In Black's article, which you can read here, he criticises the Welsh Government and in particular Carl Sargeant, the Local Government Minister, for what he sees as excessive meddling by Cardiff in the way Welsh councils are run and for tying them up in unnecessary red tape. He may well be right about some of this, although he does not get round to citing any specific examples apart from the government's intervention in the affairs of Anglesey, the biggest basket case among Welsh councils.

Anglesey was an example of local democracy which had gone spectacularly wrong, with constant in-fighting and bickering between councillors effectively bringing the council to a grinding halt. A good many of those councillors were returned unopposed at elections, and one of the concerns expressed by the commissioners put in place by Carl Sargeant was the prevailing political culture on the island and the lack of democratic choice available to voters.

As with the issue of prayers, singling out Anglesey was perhaps not the smartest thing for Peter Black to do in support of an argument for less central government interference.

Cneifiwr pointed out that under the 1972 Local Government Act, councils already have pretty sweeping powers to do whatever they like under Section 111 of that Act. Carmarthenshire County Council, for example, appears to be relying on those powers to justify the unlimited indemnity it has given its chief executive to fund libel proceedings against blogger Jacqui Thompson, even though the Welsh Government says it has given Welsh councils clear guidance that they should not act in this way.

The problem with Peter Black's proposals, unclear as they are, is that giving councils greater powers in order, he says, to "empower local communities" would be much more likely to remove constraints on the tiny elites and overmighty unelected chief executives who run quite a few Welsh councils. Far from empowering communities and voters, the risk is that we would see even more secrecy, cronyism and dictatorial behaviour from some of these self-perpetuating elites.

There are certainly strong arguments to be made in favour of targeting specific new powers to councils in areas such as planning, the environment, education and social care. The Welsh Government's handling of the Local Development Plans in places such as Wrexham is a good case in point. But even then you need checks and balances, because the very nature of local government is that it is always going to be open to abuse, corruption and cronyism.

By coincidence, the day on which Cneifiwr and Peter Black were slugging it out saw a meeting of the Standards Committee of Barnet Borough Council in London to consider charges of breach of conduct against Tory council leader Brian Coleman. Coleman had made some particularly offensive and nasty comments in e-mails he sent to several residents about an issue involving a waste management company. You can read about the background on Mrs Angry's excellent blog here.

In the end, Coleman was found to have breached the code, and as punishment he was ordered to write letters of apology to two people. As the verdict was delivered, he showed his contempt for the process by reading messages on his phone. His solicitor argued unsuccessfully that the sanctions should have been applied under the terms of the new Pickles Localism bill because then he would not even have had to go to the bother of writing an apology.

If that is the kind of empowerment which Black thinks we should have in Wales, dim diolch.

In his response to Cneifiwr's comments, Black says that he is advocating radical change in local government and the way councils are elected. The main evidence for this claim would seem to come from an article he wrote back in 2010 (here). This was, of course, written before the LibDems joined the Tories in coalition, since when he has concentrated his fire on attacking Labour and Plaid Cymru.

To be fair, the article does make some concrete proposals for local government reform in Wales, although whether these ideas still reflect wider LibDem thinking is not clear.

In Carmarthenshire, which is not fertile ground for the LibDems, the sole LibDem councillor has been happily propping up the ruling closet Tory Independent group and loyally voting for Mery Gravell. You cannot see the join because there isn't one.

And so, it seems, is the case with Peter Black, as he advocates importing Eric Pickles and his plans to Wales, "liberating" Anglesey this year so that it can slip back into its old bad habits, and gives his blessing to making prayers part of council business.

We certainly need local government reform and a reduction in the number of councils, but copying England is not what Wales needs.

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