Wednesday 8 November 2017

A Regional Revolution

After treading water for a couple of years, the Welsh Government is planning to unveil its latest ideas for reforming local government next year, but for those of you who cannot wait that long, the Swansea "City Deal" signed in March this year by Theresa May, Carwyn Jones, Alun Cairns, Mark Drakeford and the four council leaders involved contains some pretty big clues as to what we can expect.

Quaint concepts such as accountability, devolution, democracy and local decision making will give way to corporatist, technocratic, big is beautiful constructs in which government ministers and civil servants in London and Cardiff will have rather more say in who really runs local government than voters do.

In what looks set to be a beautifully crafted exercise in smoke and mirrors, voters will be left with directly elected councils and the municipal trimmings that go with them while power over just about everything except rubbish collections will be handed to new quangos.

Welcome to 'Central and South West Wales', which is not a railway station, but the provisional name for this new local government mammoth.

Before we peer into the crystal ball, let's consider how we got here.


Hardly had the dust settled on Carwyn Jones's latest reshuffle than up popped Leighton Andrews on Twitter plugging one of his courses at Cardiff University. For a modest fee, new members of Carwyn's cabinet can pop along to learn how to be a minister between 2 and 4 every Thursday.

Or perhaps that should be how not to be a minister, because in his relatively brief cabinet career, Leighton managed to get himself sacked from education in 2013 before returning a year later to reform local government, only to see his proposals shot down by a coalition of outraged local government fat cats. Voters in the Rhondda, that safest of safe Labour bets, then decided to give him the boot.

For roughly 400 years Wales managed to get by with 13 counties until Edward Heath reduced the number to 8 with a tier of district councils beneath them. 20 years later John Major's unhappy government decided to shuffle the pack again giving us the 22 unitary authorities we have today. At the time the Tories claimed the new structure would remove overlap, save huge amounts of money and be much more efficient. Labour argued that the change would see a devastating loss of local government jobs.

Needless to say, they were both wrong, and the Tories ended up creating a whole string of Labour fiefdoms destined to enjoy eternal one-party rule with all the opportunities for patronage and access to the gravy train that goes with it.

Leighton's plan was set out in a white paper, the key points of which were:
  • Merging smaller councils to reduce the total from 22 to 10 or 12.
  • A reduction in full time Cabinet roles.
  • A consulation on whether there should be term limits on chief executives.
  • A legal duty on Council leaders to ensure diversity amongst elected members and senior council staff.
  • Term limits on councillors and leaders, with no-one allowed to hold posts as a councillor and AM at the same time.
  • A review of the remuneration of councillors, Leaders and Cabinet members, to bring costs down.

Tact and diplomacy were never Leighton's strongest points, and the pale and the stale choked on their Prosecco. Labour local government types, previously so strongly opposed to the John Major reforms, prepared to defend their fiefdoms, and they were joined in the trenches by the likes of Pam Palmer in Carmarthenshire, horrified by the idea that anyone should try to end her divine right to rule by limiting the amount of time that people like her and Meryl Gravell could take home a senior salary while letting Mark James get on with actually leading the show.

Leighton's spectacular defeat in the Rhondda meant that the showdown never happened, and his proposals were given a quiet burial.

So it was back to the drawing board for the government, which decided that regional working was the way forward.

Education and planning

The government is expected to bring forward new proposals for regional local government next year, but the process has already started, quietly and through the back door, with the establishment of regional education consortia. In Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Neath Port Talbot, Swansea, Pembrokeshire and Powys ERW (Education Through Regional Working) has taken on functions and responsibilities which previously lay with elected county councils, complete with its own chief executive and cadre of officers.

It is unlikely that more than a generous one voter in every 100 will have heard of ERW, which is just as well because it is completely unaccountable to them, and ERW has its counterparts in other parts of the country, all charged with delivering an "agreed regional strategy and business plan to support school improvement."

Any body which serves six masters, such as ERW, is in reality accountable to none of them, and concerns have been expressed at how a homogenizing body which covers such a hugely diverse area in which English predominates can meet the needs of Welsh medium education.

In planning the legislative and legal framework is already in place which will see powers transferred away from elected councils to two new bodies over which voters have next to no control.

The Swansea Bay City Region, or "City Deal" as it is now usually referred to, will be run by an Economic Strategy Board and a Joint Committee.

The ESB, which will be responsible for strategy, will be made up of business and public sector types (a very wide term which extends all the way from councils to the health boards and the fat cats of academe). Only a minority of its members is likely ever to have been elected by you or me.

The chair of the ESB will be "a private sector business person" appointed by the UK Government, the Welsh Government and members of the Joint Committee, which will be made up of representatives of the four participating local authorities.

The UK Government, currently in the shape of Alun Cairns working alongside London-based civil servants, will have a veto and effective control over who runs the show. So much for devolution, democracy and local accountability.

In planning matters, these new authorities will be responsible for drawing up a new "Strategic Development Plan" (SDP) which will somehow, nobody is entirely sure how, exist alongside the "Local Development Plans" drawn up by existing councils. And both of these elements will be subordinated to something called the "National Development Framework".

In essence, then, the City Deal ESB with its unelected head will decide what is "strategic", and anything which is strategic will be removed from the LDPs. In practice, LDPs will be left with little more than dealing with Mrs Williams' new conservatory and a couple of new bungalows in Cwmsgwt.

Planning approval for "strategic" matters will still have to go through a sort of quasi judicial process, but this will be carried out by an appointed panel. Appointed by whom is not yet clear, but at a rough guess we are talking about proteges of the council leaders on the Joint Committee, and it is more likely that pigs will sprout wings than that these appointees would ever be so unwise as to vote down something deemed to be strategic.

What we are about to get therefore is a whole new planning ecosystem of frameworks and development plans drawn up and overseen by different bodies in different places, with control over the most important bits lying somewhere between Cardiff Bay and Whitehall.

'Central and South West Wales'

If the City Deal sounds like a labyrinth, it is, and it is a labyrinth which will be subsumed into an ever bigger labyrinth of regional quango-ization under the government's plans for regional "local" government.

The City Deal agreement, signed by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Wales, the First Minister, Mark Drakeford and the four council leaders (Swansea, Camarthenshire, Neath Port Talbot and Pembrokeshire) goes rather further than just dealing with matters relating to the Swansea Bay City Region project, and outlines what will be the fate of local democracy in Wales, where we will get three super-regions: the North, Cardiff and the South-East and The Rest.

The Rest, or Central and South West Wales, will take in everything from Margam to Machynlleth and Manorbier to Meifod, including both Ceredigion and Powys, and it will be run by a "Joint Governance Committee" that will take over many of the functions currently carried out by elected councils, including, the agreement helpfully suggests, "economic development, transport, land
use planning, education improvement and social services".

Councillors and Assembly Members may be scratching their heads at this point, trying to recollect when they debated and agreed to any of this, but their turn will come next year when they will be asked to give their seal of approval to a fait accompli signed off by Mrs May, Carwyn and the four council leaders, who, as we have seen, have also handed a large degree control over what happens in this part of the world back to London.

The most that we in the west can hope for is that Adam Price's idea for Arfor, a new integrated local authority covering the west of this country, finally starts to gain a bit more traction.


Sian Caiach said...

Depressing reading. Cneifiwr. Would be nice if Arfor got off the ground. I agree with Adam Price that you need to reconstruct communities on a voluntary basis where people can live and work primarily through the medium of welsh. To draw lines around areas where the language is strong today, and maximise primary education through the medium of welsh will not be enough

Tried to win over Emlyn Dole when I was a CCC councillor but he doesn't doesn't like Arfor and dismissed it as just a Gaeltacht, which it really isn't. Arfoe will build new towns of social housing and economic development to support them for welsh speakers and motivated learners.

Here in Llanelli we are producing plenty of good, well educated welsh speakers as teenagers but few from english speaking homes have the practical opportunity to regularly use welsh in their work, their families or their communities and many see their second language slowly deteriorate if they have no access to regular social and work use. They may no longer be truly bilingual if they don't keep up their skills, but it will be preserved and revitalised if they can use welsh in the new communities.

I hope Arfor is not too radical for the new dictatorships and they have a genuine desire to preserve the Welsh Language. Unless our new welsh speakers have the opportunity to live and work in wales using the welsh language, Carwyn Jones' million new Welsh speakers won't necessarily keep the language.

Jac o' the North, said...

As you say, very few people are aware of these plans, so we can but hope that once more information is available there will be a reaction. But as you also say, if councillors and their expenses are left untouched, then the resistance isn't going to come from that quarter.

With the death of Carl Sargeant reflecting so badly on the Labour Party, the Assembly, and devolution itself; and with the worry that Brexit could be used to unpick devolution, democracy in Wales could be under serious threat.

And with a National Development Framework (for Wales or the UK?) and Strategic Development Plans trumping Local Development Plans one doesn't need a crystal ball to predict that the NDF and the SDPs will be the work of Wimpey, Bovis, Redrow and others.

With all the attendant threats to Welsh communities and the Welsh language.

Wales is going to need defenders of a wholly different calibre and commitment to those we have today.

Emlyn Uwch Cych said...

So democracy is dead then? And devolution dead with it. Out of the bonfire of the quangos arises the beautiful phoenix of regional working, like.
By the way, it wasn't just the late Ted-not-a-kiddy-fiddler-at-all-Heath who mucked up the Tudor 13 county model. Prior to the 1972 Act, we had a panoply of counties, county boroughs, urban and rural districts and boroughs. They each had different sets of powers, as did the civil parishes found in most (but not all) of them.
To refresh Cneifiwr's memory, I refer him back to the glory days of the Newcastle Emlyn Rural District, which extended nigh unto Llanycrwys.

Cneifiwr said...

Diolch Emlyn. Quite. Pre-1972 was not a golden age, but what is remarkable is that rejigging local government now seems to come round about every 20 years. I am trying to think of examples of other developed countries which constantly tinker, and can't come up with any.

Another interesting sidelight here is that this appears to be the first major project not to involve EU funding.For all its faults, I cannot imagine the EU being anything like as heavy handed and controlling as the UK government is in this. Would the EU Commission have insisted on having a say over who sits on the ESB? I doubt it. It also appears to be the case that the UK government has meddled constantly in the tortuous process of drawing up a Joint Working Agreement for the City Region.

Hard not to see this as a sign of things to come in post-Brexit Britain where taking back control will mean everything gets decided in London.

Anonymous said...

With the way the wind is blowing in Westminster there could be an election in the new year hopefully sweeping in a more socialist government

And also with things happening in our own Senedd there could be big changes in personnel there as well

These proposed regional arrangements might well fall apart and a more socialist and community focused model adopted