What was most striking about the Welsh Government’s (ie. Leighton Andrews’s) plans for redrawing the map for local government in Wales back in 2016 was that it harked back to something both very familiar and even more familiar to those old enough to remember the time between 1974-1996. Things are continuing to evolve as we step into 2018 and it looks like Alun Davies may be willing to look at new ideas for sub-national government in Wales while the Expert Panel on Assembly Reform has made some excellent proposals in its report to improve accountability and engagement.
There has been an unfortunate history of local government reorganization in Wales, all of which, to date, has been motivated by political desirability for Westminster parties than the genuine interests of the people of Wales.
So, what should the first local government reorganization created in Wales, for Wales, actually look like? More importantly, what should be the guiding principles that underpin it?
The Welsh Gov’s approach was to follow the Sunderland report into improving local democracy in Wales with the Williams Commission into public services. Despite receiving some cross party support in the assembly, the recommendations of the latter report remain unimplemented. The WLGA was unenamored and, in fact, wrote a brief but fascinating alternative proposal that mooted the idea of creating 4 combined regional authorities for Wales (North, Mid & Central, South West and South East) that states that the architecture of public services should follow the maxim that form follows function.
So with three options laid open for discussion (four if you include the status quo), we await the Welsh Government’s publication of what its somewhat vague regional cooperation plan might actually be. In the meantime, a fifth option might be worth exploring.
Such is the appetite to decry those who publish maps (apparently there’s nothing more dangerous than a General with a map), there is a great deal of value in looking at boundaries, particularly when Public Services are concerned. The Williams proposals looked like this:
In an era where the the link between Westminster and Welsh Assembly constituencies could yet be removed, AMs will be unconstrained in future boundary debates and should be looking at redrawing any map of public services based on what they currently have responsibility for delivering (with one eye on the future responsibilities and opportunities). Form really ought follow function.
This could also be a golden moment to align hitherto ad hoc structures. Arguably, Andrew RT Davies was within touching distance of a genuinely good idea when he proposed a minister for North Wales. If a well mapped structure for large, strong, regional governments within Wales was formulated, could the Assembly not align its regional constituencies with the regional government structures?
One could envisage a Regional Government Minister chairing a Committee for each region that addresses the unique public service issues for that region as well as voicing a collective, powerful voice for that part of Wales. There you have a through line from local representation at council level all the way up to the Welsh Government, including all key public services (education, health, social care, emergency services – possibly others) along the way. With a bit of luck, it could even address even the deepest of regional issues.
As an example, a Dyfed Committee could feature (at least):
– The Minister for Regional Government
– The Governor of Dyfed
– The Chief Executive of Hywel Dda Health Board
– The PCC for Dyfed Powys Police
– The Regional AMs for Dyfed
If Committee hearings were held in the region itself, it may bring the work of the Assembly closer to the regions of Wales and enhance the perception of devolution.
Coterminosity used to its full advantage to improve public service delivery and amplify the voice of sub-national democracy.
If the model outlined above, or that proposed by the WLGA, was to be considered there would be a significant issue of local accountability to be determined. At present, such challenges land squarely at the door of the Welsh Government Minister. Would it not make more sense for truly local arrangements to be addressed at regional level rather than at national government level?
At the heart of ‘what is done at what level’ is the question of identity. Wales doesn’t benefit from long-established territorial divisions based on topography/geography as other small countries such as Denmark do. What it does have (in a similar fashion to the Republic of Ireland) is a lasting cultural influence of pre-English Conquest kingdoms – as per 1974 reforms – broadly Gwynedd, Powys, Dyfed/Deheubarth and Morgannwg (along with Clwyd and Gwent, of course).
Whether these are still valid identifiers or whether post-industrial revolution demarcations such as ‘The Valleys’ have superseded them in public consciousness is an issue that really ought be considered as part of any reforms. In fact, larger regions could offer a way for smaller areas of strong identity (such as Pembrokeshire, Monmouthshire or one of the many other little Englands in Wales) by defining administrative boundaries within themselves.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be controversial to propose that accountability, identity and the principles behind government structures should matter more than cost saving and equivalence of population size.
Too different, not different enough
In bars in Dublin, it’s not uncommon to hear the Welsh described in not entirely flattering circumstances as ‘The Little English’ and, when you look at the way the Labour Party has governed Wales since 1999, it’s not an entirely unfitting monicker. With centralisation of power in a capital in the south-east of the country and a perceived, if not actual, lack of regard for the country north of the motorway there are very strong parallels between the two. It’s also indicative of the fact that Wales is still part of England’s realm and, for many a year, the shires west of Offa’s Dyke were simply shires like those to the east.
It’s a national curse in Wales that all instruments of public service are compared to England. In an interesting BBC Documentary, Huw Lewis (Education Minister no longer) rightly responded to a question about why Wales hadn’t followed England’s lead with Academisation by saying that England’s wasn’t even the most successful system in the UK, let alone Europe – why should we follow them? The ‘too different, not different enough’ comparisons with England are endlessly problematic (see ‘GCSE’). Mr Lewis’s stated optimism that Wales has ‘broken away’ from England, with the best will in the world, still rings a decibel or two shy of true.
This is why one could look at the WLGA proposals for local government reform and see that two case studies from England (and none from elsewhere) smacks of Red Rose-Tinted Spectacles. Examples abound across Europe and the wider world of successful local/regional/provincial systems of governance. Where are the international case studies?
For all the brouhaha surrounding the creation of the 2017 Wales Act, the stated objectives of a ‘clear, robust and lasting devolution settlement‘ have been agreed by all parties even if they ring somewhat hollow in the context of the subsequent legislation. Setting out clear objectives is helpful to all involved in a process but is anyone clear about what the real objectives for local government reform are?
The principles of clarity, subsidiarity and democracy should be prioritised, with efficient, representative, good value governance the by-product. The intention should be to instate structures that will stand the test of time and retain sufficient flexibility to adapt.
Wouldn’t the most valuable result of a major reform be that public services and regional government are aligned in a way that makes them both more effective and more accountable?