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Politics

Time for a new relationship with local government

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Asking local government leaders for their ideas: Alun Davies

I LIKE to think that I’m not often lost for words in the Chamber. But during my oral questions session the other week, Plaid’s spokesperson, Sian Gwenllian, asked me a question that momentarily left me like a goldfish gasping for breath.

Sian asked me what would be my style as a minister. I guess that she wanted to know whether I’d be more Leighton or Mark. Whether I would seek to impose a policy or seek a consensus. I have no idea whether my response pleased her or not. But it was a good question and it has led me to think again how I would answer the question.

Over the years successive ministers have tried several different approaches and styles. Local government leaders have been flattered, cajoled, persuaded and been drawn into temptation by a whole feast of ministerial offerings. This is certainly one area of policy where there have been an embarrassment of riches with a whole government full of green papers, white papers, commissions and strategies and speeches and statements.

What all of this earnest activity has in common is that it has all failed to deliver any meaningful reform of either the structures or ways of working in local government. It has failed to deliver change or reform and it has failed to create a consensus on the shape of what any reform may actually look like. Maps have come and gone. Footprints debated and heads nodded. Within a month of my own appointment I was told at the WLGA’s seminar in Cardiff in no uncertain terms to put away the Bill and the policy that I had inherited only a couple of weeks previously.

And no report from the WLGA seminar would be complete without mention of Newport’s Debbie Wilcox who has taken the organisation by the scruff of the neck. Her powerful speech set the tone for the day and impressed all of us with her emphasis on the value and importance of localism within the devolved context.

And it was this speech which first helped me to understand that times are changing.

As well as telling me that the inherited policy of mandated regional working wasn’t a runner I was also told that the current shape and structure of local government is not sustainable. And it is this latter point that has dominated my conversations with local government leaders since November.

In my initial conversations I see a generation of leaders committed to their communities and to local government as a powerful and dynamic shaper of those communities. These are people that understand only too well that the failure to agree on an approach to local government policy reflects poorly on everyone – local government and Welsh Government. Repeating the word ‘no’ during difficult times engenders neither confidence nor conviction.

Since taking office I have tried to spend time talking with people. From the wonderful Guildhall in Swansea to the marvellous civic centre in Newport and a former cell in Caernarfon I have discussed and enjoyed the creative force of leaders with drive and energy and a determination to lead change. And I am left with the absolute belief that local government has the vision and the ambition to transform our communities. And to deliver on this vision they need the powers and the freedoms to chart their own courses.

So what is the role for Welsh Government? Great efforts have been made recently to re-build and re-set the relationship and there is certainly a sense that things have improved significantly. We need to build on these firm foundations. For me it is time that Welsh Government joined the debate over the future of local government with a degree of humility rather than an over-large helping of hubris. Too often in the past the tone from Welsh Government has been hectoring, arrogant and policy expressed in intemperate language with criticism that has been unwarranted and unjustified.

Perhaps it’s time for the Government to say sorry and to start again.

So this brings me to answer Sian’s question.

In resetting the relationship between the Welsh Government and local government we need to root our approach firmly in the values of local democracy. A belief in not only civic pride but in local government and local decision-making rather than the local administration of national priorities. A belief that local government leaders and strong councils are better able to deliver excellent public services and to protect the interests of public service workers than a series of instructions from the Bay.

So I have written to all local government leaders asking them for their ideas for powers that should be provided to local government. What are the freedoms and flexibilities that they need to deliver on their mandates and ambitions? I will publish the answers and will publish a route map to deliver those new powers.

But I cannot travel on this journey alone.

The new powers alone will not provide all the answers to the question of sustainability that were so powerfully put back in November. The leader of a rural authority told me last week of the reductions they were making – hundreds of jobs lost over the last few years. And it is this erosion of the public workforce with its inevitable impact on services provided and the terms of service for those who keep their jobs that worries me most. No-one is a winner today. And no-one that I have met wants more of the same.

So the Welsh Government needs to change its approach and to provide for a new relationship. And that also means a new tone. A tone rooted in the respect for local mandates and the pressures faced by local councillors and public service workers. A tone and an approach which seeks to build together a joint venture to provide local authorities with the new powers they need. And then we need to build together the structures that will enable authorities to deliver on those new powers.

It may well be the case that after nearly two decades of devolved government that our democracy is maturing and that the relationship between a more powerful Welsh parliament and more powerful local authorities will be one where we can learn to govern together as a single Welsh public service and leave the arguments and negative debates in the past.

I certainly hope so.

This article appeared originally on the personal blog of Alun Davies AM and is reproduced with his kind permission.

Alun Davies is the AM for Blaenau Gwent and the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services

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Politics

Lib Dems slam ‘botched’ scheme

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THE WELSH Liberal Democrats have slammed the Conservative Government for their “hapless treatment” of EU citizens after the Home Office released guidance on the new EU Settlement Scheme.

The Home Office has confirmed that for the duration of the trial period, until 30 March, EU citizens applying to stay in the UK must either use an Android phone or travel to one of 13 ‘document scanning’ centres instead.

For Holyhead, the closest ‘document scanning’ centre is Trafford.

According to an analysis by the Welsh Liberal Democrats, EU citizens travelling from Holyhead would face costs of £55 on the train for at least a six and a half hour round trip. The drive would be a 224-mile round trip costing around £56 in fuel.

The only document scanning centre in Wales is in Caerphilly. Travelling from Pembroke to Caerphilly and returning the same day by rail would cost £32.10 (the cheapest available fare at the time of enquiry), the cheapest off-peak fare from Aberystwyth would be £77.10 return. By car at an average of 40mpg, the cost of travel would be at least £27 to and from Pembroke, while from Aberystwyth the cost would be at least £25. Both car journeys represent round trips of over 180 miles.

Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Jane Dodds said: “Too many people in Wales are deeply anxious about their right to stay. Many of them fill vital roles in the health service, our schools and the tourism sector. They want to register as soon as possible, but Theresa May’s hapless treatment of EU citizens could result in a new Windrush scandal.

“For anyone who doesn’t have an android phone, this botched scheme means they will have to travel. For people in Holyhead, that means facing a 224-mile round trip and paying over £50 for the privilege. This postcode lottery is simply unacceptable.”

Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson Ed Davey MP said: “Following significant pressure, the Prime Minister said there will be no financial barrier for any EU nationals who wish to stay. How long did that commitment last?

“It is Conservative Ministers who have made a mess of Brexit. They should either pay the cost for EU citizens or change the application system and ensure EU citizens are made to feel welcome in the UK.

“Ultimately, the best way to avoid all of this mess is by giving the people the option to remain in the EU with a final say on Brexit.”

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Politics

Retailers’ no deal reality check

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THE HEADS of the UK’s major food retailers, including McDonald’s, M & S and Asda, have written to MPs and dramatically spelt out their view of the risks of leaving the EU without an agreement.

The warning comes shortly after the revelation that Britain has begun stockpiling food, fuel, spare parts and ammunition at military bases in Gibraltar, Cyprus and the Falklands in case of a no-deal Brexit.

With all contingency plans routinely labelled ‘Project Fear’ by those Brexiters stuck on transmit instead of receive, the retailers have taken a significant risk in sticking their collective head above the parapet by trying to address a substantial issue which is rather glossed by those proclaiming the benefits and underplaying the downside of a crash out Brexit.

The letter is backed by the British Retail Consortium, which represents over 70% of Britain’s retailers by turnover.

The Government said that it was taking special measures to minimise the impact of a no-deal Brexit on supermarkets’ suppliers and insisted that food was not going to run out as a result.

“The government has well-established ways of working with the food industry to prevent disruption and we are using these to support preparations for leaving the European Union.”

The Food and Drink Federation, which represents thousands of food processors and manufacturers, has said a no-deal Brexit would be a “catastrophe”, with uncertainty undermining investment and constraining businesses’ ability to plan and export.

DEAL OR NO DEAL: THE LETTER

On behalf of our businesses and the wider food industry, we want to highlight to you the challenges for retailers and the consequences for millions of UK consumers of leaving the European Union without a deal at the end of March. While we have been working closely with our suppliers on contingency plans it is not possible to mitigate all the risks to our supply chains and we fear significant disruption in the short term as a result if there is no Brexit deal. We wanted to share with you some practical examples of the challenges we are facing.

Our supply chains are closely linked to Europe – nearly one-third of the food we eat in the UK comes from the EU. In March the situation is more acute as UK produce is out of season: 90% of our lettuces, 80% of our tomatoes and 70% of our soft fruit are sourced from the EU at that time of year. As this produce is fresh and perishable, it needs to be moved quickly from farms to our stores.
This complex, ‘just in time’ supply chain will be significantly disrupted in the event of no deal. Even if the UK government does not undertake checks on products at the border, there will still be major disruption at Calais as the French government has said it will enforce sanitary and customs checks on exports from the EU, which will lead to long delays; Government data suggest freight trade between Calais and Dover may reduce by 87% against current levels as a result. For consumers, this will reduce the availability and shelf life of many products in our stores.

We are also extremely concerned about the impact of tariffs. Only around 10% of our food imports, a fraction of the products we sell, is currently subject to tariffs so if the UK were to revert to WTO Most Favoured Nation status, as currently envisaged in the no-deal scenario, it would greatly increase import costs, which could in turn put upward pressure on food prices. The UK could set import tariffs at zero but that would have a devastating impact on our own farmers, a key part of our supply chains.

Our ability to mitigate these risks is limited. As prudent businesses we are stockpiling where possible, but all frozen and chilled storage is already being used and there is very little general warehousing space available in the UK. Even if there were more space it is impossible to stockpile fresh produce, such as salad leaves and fresh fruit. Retailers typically store no more than two weeks’ inventory and it becomes difficult to restock stores if the supply chain is disrupted. We are also attempting to find alternative supply routes but there are limited options and not enough ferries, so this could only replace a fraction of the current capacity.

We are extremely concerned that our customers will be among the first to experience the realities of a no deal Brexit. We anticipate significant risks to maintaining the choice, quality and durability of food that our customers have come to expect in our stores, and there will be inevitable pressure on food prices from higher transport costs, currency devaluation and tariffs.

We are therefore asking you to work with your colleagues in Parliament urgently to find a solution that avoids the shock of a no deal Brexit on 29 March and removes these risks for UK consumers.

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WG votes down another rights Bill

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THE WELSH Government has voted down a second Private Members Bill in a week, leading to an angry reaction from the Welsh Conservative Party.

Welsh Conservative AM – Darren Millar – slammed the Welsh Governments ‘tribalism’ as a key contributor to its failings in Wales, and described its rigid approach to politics as ‘comparative of an authoritarian regime’.

Last week, The Herald reported on opposition AMs’ fury that the Welsh Government voted against Assembly Member Paul Davies’ private bill which aimed to ensure increased support for autistic people of all ages, by addressing issues such as health and social services, educational outcomes, access to housing, and employment and providing rights of statutory redress when services fail.

The Older People’s Rights Bill was proposed by Mr Millar, and designed to ensure that older people in Wales were protected, promoted and respected by public sector decision makers.

The Bill was backed by the Older People’s Commissioner, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, Age Cymru, Age Connects, and the Cymru Older People’s Alliance, amongst others.

Proposals for Mr Millar’s Bill had previously received cross-party support, and the Welsh Government supported a motion which was agreed by the National Assembly for Wales on 12th January 2016 to bring forward legislation to protect and promote the rights of older people.

GOVERNMENT REJECTS STATUTORY RIGHTS

Notwithstanding the Welsh Government’s previous position, it once again waved the shroud of wanting to deal with issues in a holistic way without resorting to legislation ‘at this stage’.

Fear is growing that the Welsh Government is fearful of enacting legislation that confers rights to individuals, preferring instead to listen to service providers whose services might not withstand close scrutiny and a rights-based approach to ensuring compliance with standards.

Speaking in the Assembly, Darren Millar said: “The purpose of the Bill is to build on Wales’s excellent track record to date by embedding a rights-based approach in the development, planning and delivery of public services that affect older people in Wales.

“If given permission, I will seek to consult with stakeholders to develop a Bill that will further enshrine the rights of older people within Welsh law, by placing a duty on Welsh Ministers to have regard to the United Nations Principles for Older Persons when making decisions that may impact upon older people in Wales; that will provide for the ability to extend that due-regard duty to local authorities, health boards and other Welsh public authorities; that will place a duty on Welsh Ministers to promote knowledge of and understanding of the UN Principles for Older Persons; and that will require Welsh Ministers to publish annual reports on their compliance with their older people’s rights schemes—something that doesn’t happen at the moment.”

The proposed legislation was very similar to the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011. A Bill which passed the Assembly with little controversy.

Mr Millar continued: “We embarked upon this journey a number of years ago and we can deliver and pioneer a new rights-based approach for older people’s rights here in Wales. We’ve got an opportunity to develop legislation that will result in practical improvements in the decision making and delivery of public services, that will raise awareness of older people’s rights and give them recognition and status, and that will empower those hundreds of thousands of older people across Wales to access those rights.”

THE TIME IS NOT RIGHT

Responding on behalf of the Welsh Government, Minister for Local Government Julie James suggested that older persons’ rights are already sufficiently protected by a range of Welsh Government measures, including its totemic Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

In any event, the Welsh Government did not regard the time had yet come for legislation – rather ignoring the point that the current First Minister supported such legislation when he was Health Minister.

Ms James concluded: “While I strongly support the sentiments behind this Bill, the time is not right for this particular bit of legislation. When we do legislate, we should do that holistically for the whole of society and in a way that identifies the needs of all disadvantaged groups.”

Supporting Darren Millar’s bill and suggesting that it should progress to the next stage so elements of it could be incorporated into future Welsh Government legislation, Plaid Cymru’s Helen Mary Jones pointed out: “Unless individuals have mechanisms they can use which don’t depend on the Government and that do not depend on an independent commissioner, but that they can use themselves to enforce those rights, those rights at their very end may not be enforced.”

David Rowlands (UKIP) said: “It is incumbent on statutory authorities to ensure that the core mainstream services are available to older residents in the same way that they are for other people… If children are protected in law, why not the other most vulnerable group, the old?”

THE PAYROLL VOTE VOTES

Concluding the debate, Darren Millar noted that an invitation extended to both himself and the older people’s commissioner to meet with the Government on February 6 to discuss its ‘holistic’ plans for the future was made only the day before the scheduled debate.

As usual, Labour AMs, including ‘independent’ government minister Dafydd Elis Thomas and Lib Dem Kirsty Williams, followed the government line. Two members abstained, Bethan Sayed and Jenny Rathbone. Apart from Ms Sayed, all other opposition parties supported the Bill.

It fell by 27 votes to 21.

Speaking after the vote, Darren Millar said: “This is not the way politics should be handled in this country, and it’s not the footing that the First Minister should start on with his new Government. It’s a tribal attitude and it is holding Wales back.

“The Welsh Government does not have a monopoly on good ideas. Both this Bill – and last week’s Autism Bill – are non-contentious proposals which had widespread cross-party and stakeholder support.

“We are supposed to be a democracy where the ideas of all elected representatives, regardless of their party politics, can be treated with respect, but in Wales, under this regime, that clearly isn’t the case.”

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