Spokesperson’s Questions – Local Government Reform

Mar 21, 2018 | Assembly Business, Uncategorised | 0 comments

Plenary 21st March 2018

14:45
Gareth Bennett AM

Gareth Bennett AM

Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

Diolch, Llywydd.

Minister, I wanted to return to the issue of local government reform, which we were discussing yesterday. There were various issues that came out of that. Mike Hedges, your colleague, raised the subject that there will still be considerable population variations, even after your proposed reorganisation, with different councils having widely different populations.

Rhondda Cynon Taf has currently one of the biggest populations of the current 22 councils, at about 240,000 people. If you were to merge RCT with Merthyr, which is your current proposal—or part of your current proposal—that would add 60,000 people. If you then add Bridgend to the mix as well, which is also part of your proposed plan as it stands, you end up with a population in that proposed council that’s not far off half a million people. RCT also has around 30 one-member wards, most of which will presumably be swallowed up or merged following the reorganisation. So, how can we keep a sense of localism and local accountability when places like Taff’s Well, Church Village, Llantrisant — I’m not saying these exact places, but certainly communities like these — will no longer have their own councillor, serving just that place?

Alun Davies AM

Alun Davies AM

Title: Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services Party: Welsh Labour

I think the challenge outlined by the UKIP spokesperson is a good one and I don’t disagree with him about the challenges raised. I don’t believe, and I’ve never claimed, that the Government believes that there’s an optimum shape and an optimum size for local government. What we’re seeking to do is to publish an indicative map that will look at potential shapes of future structures. I hope I made clear to Members yesterday that I’m very happy and very content to have further conversations on all of those different matters. This is a Green Paper process: what it is is a conversation, a consultation, a debate, a discussion; what it isn’t is concluded Government policy and what it isn’t is a dogmatic view or a determinist view of what the future should hold. I want to look at what is possible, balancing the sort of localism that’s been described there with the scale to deliver robust and high-quality public services, and I’m very, very happy to consider how that is best done.

Gareth Bennett AM

Gareth Bennett AM

Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

I’m glad to hear that you’re open to discussion and I hope that we have a good conversation, involving many players, about where we’re heading with the local government reform. I think, to be fair, whatever you do, there is going to be an element of controversy. You have to do something. You can’t make an omelette without cracking an egg, so to speak. But, to return to specific concerns — [Interruption.]. Well, I know there’s more than one. I mean, I could ask nine questions about this, but I’m restricted to three. [Interruption.] Oh, eggs. Okay, right.

Let’s go back to the questions. Vale of Glamorgan, for instance — here’s another one. We’ve got political accountability as well. This is another issue, because I think what we need to have, as far as we can, is competitive elections in the new councils, rather than perhaps creating, dare I say it, one-party states. Now, to give a possible example, Vale of Glamorgan has always been a highly competitive council. Both Labour and the Conservatives have controlled it in recent years. But if you merge it with Cardiff, which, I take it, is only a proposal — I understand that, Minister, but that’s the current proposal — if you merge Vale with Cardiff, the risk is that it becomes, possibly, a safe Labour zone. Now, I’m not commenting particularly on Labour or the Conservatives because, as you’re probably aware, I don’t belong to either party, but the point is this: is there a danger of poorly run councils if one party has a political stranglehold on that council? And is there a danger that you recognise, Minister, that we could be heading for that situation, in some cases, under your proposed plans?

Alun Davies AM

Alun Davies AM

Title: Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services Party: Welsh Labour

No. No, I don’t recognise that, and I certainly would hope to see competitive elections and competitive democracy in all parts of Wales, even including Blaenau Gwent.

Gareth Bennett AM

Gareth Bennett AM

Party: United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

Well, Blaenau Gwent is an interesting one, because the proposal now is to merge it with Monmouthshire and with Torfaen. Now, last time, we had the issue that there was a voluntary merger proposed by Blaenau and Torfaen — I think Lynne Neagle mentioned this yesterday — but that voluntary merger was turned down. So, I think this is an instance in the past where one of your predecessors wasn’t perhaps as willing to consult as perhaps he should have been. So, I hope you do take a different route if we do have a voluntary proposal, perhaps involving Torfaen and Blaenau Gwent. I hope you would look upon it, perhaps, in a better light than Leighton Andrews did.

To advance to my third question, there is an argument that’s been put forward today by the Vale of Glamorgan leader, who has been mentioned earlier — John Thomas. He makes a particular point, which is that the Vale currently—this is his contention — is one of the best performing councils. So, I make no comment on that, but my question is: will performance indicators be taken into account by you as you look into the proposals, and how far will they weigh in your final considerations as to the mergers?

Alun Davies AM

Alun Davies AM

Title: Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services Party: Welsh Labour

I hope that over the next few months what we will debate and discuss is a vision for the future of local government, and not simply the means by which we achieve that vision. What I tried to set out yesterday, and what I want to set out over the coming months, is a vision for local government where local government is more powerful than it is today, is stronger than it is today, has more robust units of governance, able to deliver a broader range of powers. I do not wish to enter a debate with the argument that we’re building on ashes. I do not wish to enter a debate that we are simply rectifying failure. I don’t want to have a debate on those terms. The Welsh Local Government Association has made it clear many times that the current structures are not sustainable. Nobody that I have spoken to has argued for 22 authorities.139

So, there is agreement that we can’t carry on the way things are. There is agreement that the current position is not sustainable. What we need, then, to do, is to debate and discuss how we take these matters forward. I hope that people will look beyond simply a debate around mergers to have a debate about what sort of units of governance we want to see in Wales in the future. How do we devolve powers from this place? How do we empower local communities? And how do we hardwire democratic accountability? I want to have that vigorous, rich debate about the future of local government. I believe that we have the potential to create a very real renaissance for local government across the whole of Wales, and I hope that Members on all sides of the Chamber will contribute positively to developing and delivering that vision.