Wednesday 15 August 2012

The WLGA: A peculiar kind of democracy

As we go about our daily lives, it is fair to say that very few people in Wales will ever think about the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) or even know what it is. Should we even care?

The WLGA is one of those official bodies which, unseen and unheard by most of us, goes about making decisions and expressing its views on all sorts of matters to central government and in Europe, and what it does and says affects us all.

The role of the WLGA is to represent the 22 local authorities in Wales, and it says that its primary aims are "to promote better local government and its reputation and to support authorities in the development of policies and priorities which will improve public services and democracy".

The inclusion of the word reputation in the WLGA's mission statement tells us that the spin doctors and PR merchants can't be far away in this organisation.

The four Welsh police authorities, three national parks and three fire and rescue authorities are associate members, and rather like one of those Russian dolls, the WLGA is also a member of the Local Government Association for England and Wales.

The WLGA has a chief executive, an 8-member senior management team, a secretariat, a Council, a Coordinating Committee and a Management Sub-Committee. It has regional coordinators, a head of communications and, rather bizarrely, a "Marketing and Events Officer". And lots more besides.

The whole thing is naturally financed by the taxpayer, although the WLGA's commitment to open and transparent government does not seem to extend to telling us what it costs us or how many people it employs. It is possible that this information exists somewhere, but the WLGA's own website appears to have nothing to say on this tawdry subject.

In this post-Blair, free-market age of collaboration and cross-sector cooperation, the WLGA is also proud to tell us that its has two commercial sponsors in the form of PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Risk Management Partners. What form that sponsorship takes from these two firms who both derive a lot of business from our councils, we are not told. At least MacDonalds and Coca Cola don't make an appearance.

The website contains copies of lots of documentation on all sorts of matters, and there is no doubt that it does perform some important functions. In a country with a highly fragmented local government system (the 22 county and county borough councils, 3 national parks, etc.), there is certainly a case for having a body which can help pool resources and coordinate activities, but the WLGA's activities extend far beyond best practice in mending potholes.

Unlike most people in Wales, for example, the WLGA thinks (a recent press release tells us) that council newspapers are a very good thing indeed, and that they provide "vital information". Perhaps some of them do, although residents of Carmarthenshire may be forgiven for wondering how vital the latest musings of Kevin Madge or the children's pages of Carmarthenshire News actually are. Could we really survive without them?

For those of you who cannot wait for the next edition of Carmarthenshire News, Cneifiwr can confidently predict that one of the items which will be given prominence is the election of Kevin Madge to the prestigious post of deputy presiding officer of the WLGA.

The word election in the context of local government conjours up images of people dutifully traipsing down to their nearest polling station to cast a vote, but this election was a rather more exclusive affair.

The WLGA's council currently has 68 members. The members themselves are councillors from across Wales, and should therefore represent some kind of cross-section of political opinion in Wales, you might think.

Not a bit of it.

47 of the 68 members* are Labour councillors, including our own Kevin Madge and one of his two deputies, Tegwen Devichand. That is a whisker under 70% of the council's membership.

14 further members (20%) of the council describe themselves as "Independent", including Carmarthenshire's other deputy leader, Pam Palmer, and Cllr Mair Stephens.

Plaid Cymru have just 3 members (4%), and the Tories have 4 (6%). There are no LibDems or members of any other groups.

Labour certainly did well in the May council elections in Wales, but they got nowhere near 70% of the vote (they won 47% of the seats contested, and their share of the vote was probably somewhat lower than that). In Carmarthenshire 74% of those who voted did not vote for a Labour candidate, but we still got a Labour leader.

With that thunderous mandate from the people of Carmarthenshire, Kev has gone on to become number two in the WLGA's political pecking order and speak on behalf of local government in Wales as a whole.

To the people of Wales we in Carmarthenshire can only say sorry. We didn't mean to, honest!

* The WLGA's website says that the council has 79 members, but only 68 are listed. The members are all drawn from the ruling groups of the various councils, which means that opposition councillors are excluded.

That's democracy for you!


Tessa said...

I'd heard of the group and wondered exactly what it did - not much, then, it would seem. yes I'd love to know the cost of it. Sounds like another quango existing just to provide jobs for the boys/girls, and I suspect extra special responsibility allowances for councillor members. The justification of its existence will be the usual printed waffle and public sector jargon speak. I bet the travel expenses for the talking shops tot up to a fair old amount, too.

Anonymous said...

Next question .... How do we get rid of it and half the fat cats in Carmarthenshire County Council? Enough is enough!