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
Campaigners Thank Local MP, Ben Lake, for Championing Community Energy
Today campaign group, Power for People, thanked local MP, Ben Lake, for holding a debate last night in the House of Commons to promote community renewable energy by creating a ‘Right to Local Supply’ in law.
Central to the debate was a proposed new law, known as the Local Electricity Bill, that Mr Lake is co-sponsoring and which is supported by 212 MPs. The Bill aims to help rebuild local economies whilst increasing clean energy generation.
If made law, the Bill would empower community-owned local energy companies to sell locally generated renewable electricity directly to local households and businesses.
Currently customers can only purchase electricity from nationally licensed utilities. The Bill’s supporters say this means money people use to pay their energy bills is not helping to rebuild local economies and local clean energy infrastructure.
Responding to the debate, Energy Minister, Kwasi Kwarteng MP, said, “It is certainly something that I as the Energy Minister will be willing to engage with and have a discussion about … I think that with a co-operative spirit, we can get very far.”
Campaigning group, Power for People, are calling for MPs and the government to make the Bill law and are leading a supportive coalition of organisations including Community Energy Wales, Community Energy England, Community Energy Scotland, WWF, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the RSPB. 62 local authorities have also pledged their support.
Ben Lake, MP for Ceredigion, said, “A Right to Local Supply will empower and enable new community energy companies to sell energy that they generate directly to local people which will accelerate our transition to clean energy and help strengthen local economies. The Local Electricity Bill would enshrine this in law and I will do all I can to ensure it succeeds.”
Power for People’s Director, Steve Shaw, said, “We thank Ben Lake for holding a debate on the Local Electricity Bill in the House of Commons. If made law, the Bill would unleash the huge potential for new community-owned clean energy infrastructure and for this to boost local economies, jobs, services, and facilities in communities across Ceredigion, Wales and the rest of the UK.”
Ceredigion MP urges UK Government to back Welsh farmers
THE UK Government has rejected the latest attempt to require imported food to meet domestic legal standards from 1 January.
The Agriculture Bill – designed to prepare the farming industry for when the UK no longer has to follow EU laws and rules next year – returned to the Commons on Monday following amendments by the House of Lords.
During the debate on the Lords amendments in the Commons, Ben Lake MP stated: “This Government have long talked up the benefits of taking back control and of how, post-EU, we will be able to set the terms of our trade with the world. Those terms should be quite simple: UK market access for imports should be dependent on meeting equivalent UK food production standards. Without this safeguard, this Bill threatens the future prosperity of Welsh farming.”
The UK Government says EU rules banning imports of chlorine-washed chicken and other products will be automatically written into UK law once the post-Brexit transition period ends on 31 December.
But peers made a number of changes, including one which would give MPs a veto over sections in trade deals relating to food imports, which would be required to comply with “relevant domestic standards”.
They argued these changes were necessary to make it impossible for the US or other countries to export chlorinated chicken or beef injected with hormones.
However, MPs voted by 332 votes to 279 to back government plans to reject the amendment.
In response, Ben Lake MP said: “Last night, Plaid Cymru supported amendments that would have protected food standards in future trade deals and strengthened parliamentary scrutiny of trade negotiations.
“Yet again, the UK Government has let down Welsh farmers when given the chance to protect their livelihoods. Despite all their promises and manifesto commitments, the Government defeated the amendments, exposing our farmers to unfair competition and lower production standards in future trade deals.
“Plaid Cymru will continue to put forward a positive vision for our food producers based on a greater say for our devolved governments and the protection of food standards. This is not because we not only believe them necessary now, but because they are fundamental to our collective tomorrow.”
Ceredigion Conservative Association Elects a New Chairman
On the 18th September, the Ceredigion Conservative Association held its Annual General Meeting, attended remotely by Conservative Members from across the County. The Association was formally re-established and Patrick Loxdale was elected as the new Chairman.
Commenting on his new position, Patrick says:
“ I am very honoured to be given the opportunity to serve in this position. I believe passionately in democracy and the democratic process. The Welsh Conservatives came second in Ceredigion in last year’s General Election, increasing the Conservative vote share by more than the national average. It shows that Conservative values are widely held by people of all ages in Ceredigion, and it is important that we have a functioning local association, and strong candidates to allow their opinions to be heard.”
Patrick, whose family have lived in Llanilar for five generations, previously served as a Medical Officer in The Royal Navy for almost twenty years, qualifying as a Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon. From 2001 to 2016 he worked as an NHS Consultant in Devon. Moving back to Llanilar when his brother passed away, Patrick now farms from his family home and enjoys acquiring new knowledge in organic farming and rural management. Patrick adds:
“Ceredigion is a fantastic place to live, with a world beating environment. There are great opportunities for our future and our children’s security, prosperity and fulfilment here. Yet the Labour run Welsh Government continues to fail to grasp this and rarely provides any real focus outside of the M4 corridor! In next year’s Senedd election, the people of Ceredigion deserve a credible alternative choice; a choice that rejects both the on-going failures of Welsh Labour and the separatist ideology of Plaid Cymru. It is time for the people of Ceredigion to vote for the Welsh Conservatives.
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