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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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Ben Lake MP urges UK Government to review calorie legislation

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JUST one week after the legislation to label restaurants with calorie labels came to force the Hearts Minds Genes Coalition for eating disorders, chaired by multi award winning campaigner Hope Virgo, have coordinated an open letter to the Government calling on the Government to: 

  • Make a commitment that the evaluation of the new legislation to label restaurants with calories on will happen in the first year with a commitment that members from the eating disorder community and experts will be involved in this review. 
  • To make it mandatory for every single restaurant that has to have mandatory calorie labelling will also have a no-calorie menu choice for those who wish to request this 
  • To remove the labelling of calories on children’s menus in all restaurants

The letter spotlights the problematic nature of adding calories to menus, highlighting not only the dangers for those affected by eating disorders but for the wider society. It goes on to emphasise that with 16% of the adult population screening positive for an eating disorder and millions more suffering from eating disorders, what is proposed as a “common-sense approach” – focusing on weight and calorie counting – is incredibly destructive. 

Ben Lake MP

Ben Lake MP says: “Mandating calorie labelling may have a detrimental impact on those living with, or who are at risk of developing eating disorders. The rates of both eating disorders and obesity are increasing across the UK and whilst we all want to have a population approach to making society healthier, none of us want unintended consequences for people on whose lives this issue has a profound impact.  

“I believe that the UK Government should take a holistic approach to tackling obesity. Action is needed to protect children from junk food marketing with restrictions on advertising, alongside the promotion of healthy  food choices in shops and supermarkets. More widely, I believe that the UK Government must reverse cuts to public health funding to ensure that community services can support people to live healthier lives.” 

Hope Virgo says: “I honestly still can’t quite believe that this has happened. For so many people affected by eating disorders restaurants will become an even more toxic and fearful place. It will normalise conversations around food and exercise. Over the pandemic we have seen a huge increase in eating disorders, with services completely overrun. Do we really want future generations to grow up basing their food decisions on numbers? Since the legislation came into force I have been inundated with messages from people who have so much fear not just for themselves but those around them.” 

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Boris Johnson, his wife and chancellor Rishi Sunak to be fined for breaking lockdown rules

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THE PRIME MINISTER Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie, and chancellor Rishi Sunak, have been notified that they will be issued with fines for breaking lockdown rules.

The fixed penalty notices are the result of a Metropolitan Police investigation into parties in Downing Street and Whitehall in 2020 and 2021.

Mr Johnson will become the first sitting prime minister to receive a punishment for breaking the law.

Labour immediately called for both the PM and chancellor to resign while Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey called for parliament to be recalled for a vote of confidence in Mr Johnson.

Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon also demanded that they should quit.

Those calls have been echoed this week by Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Jane Dodds has called on the Welsh Conservative Leader Andrew RT Davies and Welsh Secretary Simon Hart to “show a backbone” and call for Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak to resign following the news that both men are to be fined over lockdown parties.

Commenting Jane Dodds MS told The Herald: “Boris Johnson & Rishi Sunak have broken the law & repeatedly lied, they must resign from their positions at once.

“While people in Wales were playing by the rules at great personal expense, those in charge thought they were above the law.

“This also will come as a painful blow to all those covid bereaved families in Wales.  The behavior of Johnson and Sunak

“The Welsh public deserves much better. For the sake of the country, both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak must resign immediately.

“If the Conservative Party is to have any legitimacy in Wales Andrew RT Davies and Simon Hart need to show some backbone and be calling for resignations immediately. No Welsh Conservative MP should be backing the Chancellor or Prime Minister staying in post.”

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Concessions to UK Elections Bill secured to ensure open and accessible elections in Wales

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COUNSEL GENERAL Mick Antoniw reaffirmed the Welsh Government’s commitment to open elections and increased voter participation, as the Senedd prepares to vote on the passage of the UK Government’s Elections Bill.

The UK Government’s Elections Bill proposes the introduction of mandatory photo ID, as well as measures relating to the administration and conduct of elections, overseas electors and UK citizens, and amendments to the role of the Electoral Commission.

The Welsh Government has secured concessions that mean large parts of the Bill will not apply to Senedd and local government elections in Wales. This includes removing a proposed provision that would have allowed the Secretary of State to direct the Electoral Commission in the discharge of its devolved functions in Wales.

In a Legislative Consent Motion, to be voted on in the Senedd on Tuesday, the Welsh Government is recommending consent is given in two specific areas only – digital imprints and an offence of voter intimidation.

Mick Antoniw, Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution, said: “The concessions we have secured to this Bill represent a success for devolution. The Welsh Government is committed to making elections as open and accessible as possible, and to do all in its power to increase participation.

“This is why 16 and 17 year olds and qualifying foreign citizens will be able to vote in local elections in Wales for the first time this May. We are also running pilot schemes in four local authorities designed to make it easier for people to vote at a time and a place that is convenient for them.

“The UK Government plans for voter ID risk making voting harder. Though the proposals won’t apply to devolved elections, they will apply to general elections in Wales and I’m concerned this will confuse voters. We have shared our concerns with the UK Government.”

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