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Time for a new relationship with local government



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


UK Government’s ‘considerable offer’ not enough



Breaking up's so hard to do: A UK single market on Westminster's terms

IN A speech delivered at Airbus’ Broughton HQ, Theresa May’s effective deputy, Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington, has attempted to allay fears of a Westminster power grab of devolved powers following the UK’s departure from the EU.

Mr Lidington, claimed the UK Government had made a ‘considerable offer’ to the devolved administrations with a commitment that the ‘vast majority’ of powers returning from Brussels will start off in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast rather than Whitehall.

Mr Lidington, said his plans marked “a very big change to the EU Withdrawal Bill that is before Parliament and a significant step forward in these negotiations.”

He continued: “If accepted, this offer puts beyond doubt our commitment to a smooth and orderly departure from the European Union, in a way that doesn’t just respect the devolution settlements, but strengthens and enhances them.”

Mr Lidington warned that a “divided country at home” would be “weaker, less secure and less prosperous overseas​.”​

The problem with Mr Lidington’s words is that ‘the vast majority’ is not all powers currently vested in the UKs’ devolved administrations within the EU. Moreover, the clear message that the Westminster government wanted to maintain the unity of an internal market within the UK suggests that powers will have to be taken from the devolved governments and retained permanently by the UK parliament in order to make that arrangement work. However, the UK government’s stance on agriculture, a key issue for the Welsh Government, has been extensively trailed by Michael Gove and Defra ministers for months and cannot have taken it by surprise.

Mike Russell, the Scottish Brexit minister, said: “However they try to dress this up, the UK government is using Brexit to try to take control of devolved powers without the agreement of the Scottish parliament. It is totally unacceptable for the Tories to unilaterally rewrite the devolution settlement.”

First Minister, Carwyn Jones, said: “As currently drafted, the Bill allows the UK government to take control of devolved policy areas, such as farming and fishing, once the UK has left the EU. This is an unacceptable attack on devolution in both Wales and Scotland.

“We now need further progress that goes beyond warm words and I hope the ‘very big changes’ promised in the speech equate to sensible amendments to the bill which respect devolution. We will continue to work with the UK and Scottish governments to that end.”

Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Jane Dodds commented: “Common frameworks in certain areas will certainly be important after Brexit and we would never want to put the UK’s common market at risk. However, it must be up to devolved Governments to decide if they want to enter common frameworks in devolved areas and to negotiate suitable frameworks. The UK Government cannot and must not impose frameworks on devolved Governments.

“Brexit will have huge implications for sectors such as agriculture. Brexit will cut our farmers off from their key markets and dismantle the financial support they rely on. Decisions on these vital areas must be made in Wales and address the unique needs of Welsh farmers.”

The Welsh Conservative spokesman on Europe, Mark Isherwood AM, said: “Welsh Conservatives have been steadfast in our belief that the devolution settlement must be respected with the necessary changes made to the EU Withdrawal Bill.

“As we’ve stated from the outset, we would also expect that leaving the European Union would not undermine the devolved settlement and would result in more powers making their way to the Welsh Assembly.

“It is vital that we now protect the UK’s single market and that’s why it is imperative the Welsh Government engages positively with the UK Government in this process to ensure the frameworks relating to devolved matters are agreed by all parties.”

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Wales’ housing adaptation system ‘unfair’



Critical report on adaptations: Aims to kick start much-needed improvement

THE CURRENT system for delivering housing adaptations needs to change in order to meet the needs of older and disabled people in Wales. That’s the conclusion of a report by the Auditor General for Wales.

Roughly, 70 agencies deliver housing adaptation services assisting over 32,000 people a year. Annually, over £60 million of public money is spent on these services to older and disabled people. They help restore or enable independent living, privacy, confidence and dignity for individuals and their families. Adaptations also offer an efficient and effective way of making the best use of the existing housing stock in Wales by supporting people to live independently.

The report concludes that high satisfaction ratings mask a hugely ‘complicated, reactive and inequitable system’.

The conclusions include:

Assessment processes are not streamlined or efficient, which lead to delays which can be the difference between people staying in their own homes or moving into specialist care;

The complex systems used to deliver adaptations make it difficult for people to get the help they need and often stops health professionals from using adaptation services;

There is not enough joined up working between agencies and local authorities which is making it harder for those in need to access services; and

The adaptations disabled and older people can receive are often determined by where they live in Wales and who they seek help from rather than their need;

Public bodies are not improving performance because of limited oversight of performance across Wales.

The Auditor General, Huw Vaughan-Thomas said: “Demand for housing adaptations is projected to rise. That’s why it’s so important that public bodies improve how they deliver adaptations and address the many weaknesses in the current complicated and inefficient system.

“People deserve the very best standard of service to help them live independently. Unfortunately, public bodies have failed to address some long standing weaknesses in current arrangements and disabled and older people are the ones losing out. This needs to change. My recommendations are aimed at helping kick-start much needed improvement.”

The Chair of the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay AM, said: “Housing adaptations are important in helping older and disabled people maintain their independence, but today’s report shows that due to the complexity of the current delivery system, people get very different standards of service because of where they live and not what they need.

“The report’s findings highlight a range of weaknesses and highlights that the Welsh Government, local authorities, housing associations and their partners need to improve how they deliver services to some of the most vulnerable people in society.

“It is critical that action is taken now to ensure public money is spent wisely and vulnerable people are provided with the help they need.”

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Meet Barry Gardiner



Smiling now: Barry Gardiner has to explain Labour's new policy

IT WOULD be very cruel to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn’s late conversion to Britain being members of a customs union with the EU post-Brexit was motivated by crude politicking.

Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, Barry Gardiner, has spent most of the last twelve months echoing the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ line and rejecting any form of customs union.

If Mr Gardiner was disappointed by his leader’s very public rejection of what he had every reason to believe was Mr Corbyn’s preferred policy he had every reason to be. Especially as he now has to sell the brave new policy to the media.

Writing in The Guardian last year, Barry Gardiner said: ​”​Some have suggested we should retain membership of the customs union, the benefits of which extend to goods rather than services, and establish common import tariffs with respect to the rest of the world. But that is not possible.​”​

He continued: ​”​Other countries such as Turkey have a separate customs union agreement with the EU. If we were to have a similar agreement, several things would follow: the EU’s 27 members would set the common tariffs and Britain would have no say in how they were set. We would be unable to enter into any separate bilateral free trade agreement. We would be obliged to align our regulatory regime with the EU in all areas covered by the union, without any say in the rules we had to adopt. And we would be bound by the case law of the ECJ, even though we would have no power to bring a case to the court​.”​

In other words, Mr Gardiner believes – or at least he believed then, or perhaps he believed his leader believed, or hoped against hope someone somewhere believed – that membership of a customs union was a non-starter.

He crystallised that sentiment in one pithy phrase: ‘The 52% who voted to leave the EU would consider it a con if Britain was out of Europe but still subservient to its laws and institutions’.

What a difference six months make.

On Tuesday, Jeremy Corbyn said: “We have long argued that a customs union is a viable option for the final deal. So Labour would seek to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union to ensure that there are no tariffs with Europe.”

Mr Gardiner, a genial-looking chap, must have remarkable self-control not to jump up from his seat and bellow, “You what?!”

So, now we have a sort of clear sort of policy placed before the public as an alternative to the Conservatives’ vision for Brexit. Whatever that is.

In fact, Mr Corbyn’s speechwriters came up with a very nice line on the chaos within Conservative ranks: “Time after time with this government, anything agreed at breakfast is being briefed against by lunch and abandoned by teatime.”

However, it is now poor Barry Gardiner who must explain Labour’s long teatime of the soul on a customs union. Genial though he appears, Mr Gardiner’s patience is about to sorely tested.

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