Saturday, July 12, 2014

Local government reorganisation in Wales        

By Peter Rowlands 

The recent moves by the Welsh Government (WG) to promote mergers between local authorities in Wales, as advocated by the Williams Report, means that this is now accepted as the main way in which reorganisation will take place, alongside the growth of consortia for various functions.

I regard this as utterly wrong. Even if all the proposed mergers took place no new authority would have a population of over 300,000 except Cardiff and the Vale, with many at about 200,000 or below. This would necessitate the continued operation of unaccountable and confusing consortia for different functions, with inevitable, and justified, calls for further reorganisation. What is being called for therefore would be expensive, destabilising, and unsatisfactory and only have a brief and unwarranted life.

This is not to say that Williams is all wrong. It is in my view right on town and community councils, coterminosity and scrutiny and audit, although not on Powys. However, it is the local authority mergers that are its central feature.

Rather than go down this road it would be far better for WG to bite the bullet and initiate a major reorganisation now. If this does not happen the provision of front line services in Wales will remain hampered by the costs of an inefficient local government structure.

The outlines of a new structure appear fairly obvious, at least to me. They are based on some existing boundaries including those for health, fire and police and some of the consortia. Indeed, with one exception, they follow the WG’s ‘Regional Collaborative Footprint’, which is similar to the previous county structure except that in North and mid Wales four counties have become two regions.

My recommended structure would therefore be of five new counties, as follows:

1) North Wales. These are the six counties of Anglesey, Gwynedd, Conwy, Flint, Denbigh and Wrexham. There is an exact fit with one health board, police authority, fire service and education consortium.The population of the new authority would be 675,000.
2) Mid and West Wales. This includes the four counties of Pembroke, Carmarthen, Ceredigion and Powys. There is an exact fit with one police authority and two health boards which need to be merged. The existing fire service includes Swansea and Neath/Port Talbot to which Bridgend could be transferred for fire.  New population: 510,000. (The Williams proposal to merge Powys council and health board should be rejected, as it would create a completely different structure here, which would cause all sorts of problems. If justified it should apply to all of rural Wales, as there is nothing unique about Powys in this regard, as Williams asserts.)
3) South West Wales. This includes the three counties of Swansea, Neath/Port Talbot and Bridgend. There is an exact fit with the health board. Fire would differ from current arrangements – see above. The police authority would remain shared with the rest of Glamorgan. New population: 500,000.
4) South Central Wales. This includes the four counties of Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr Tydfil. There is an exact fit with two health boards which need to be merged. Police would be as above, fire as now.  New population: 730,000.
5)South East Wales. This includes the counties of Caerphilly, Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, Newport and Monmouthshire. There is an exact fit with one police authority and health board. Fire would be as now.  New population: 560,000.

All these new authorities would have viable populations of at least 500,000, with the biggest only half as much again as that. Three would have a major town at its centre. There would be five mergers of existing authorities, two of four and one each of six, five and three. There would also be two mergers of two health boards. All consortia would be abolished as they would be replaced by the new authorities, although only in North Wales was there an exact fit with the new authority. There would be no point in adding to the number of police or fire authorities, particularly as a single all Wales police service has been mooted.

Something along these lines is what is needed, and if that cannot be afforded now there is no point in mergers between two authorities, for reasons given above. The suggested reorganisation would be expensive but would generate substantial savings and better run services. It would also avoid a ‘democratic deficit’ caused by power being held by consortia which were not directly accountable to the electorate, while the increased size and remoteness of the new councils could be countered by a beefed up network of Community Councils that operated everywhere rather than just in rural or fringe suburban areas as at present. On this Williams is right, with proposals to reduce the number (amazingly, 736) of town and community councils
through mergers to create more effective bodies, and to generate new bodies to cover urban areas along the lines of the successful ’neighbourhood management’ initiative in Cardiff.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Wales and the Euro-elections

by Nick Davies

It would be nice to report that on May 22nd, Wales, the only part of the UK with a Labour government, with a proud tradition of solidarity, hospitality and equality, which has benefited from European funding and which has previously been  less Eurosceptic than England, roundly rejected the small-state, anti-immigration, anti-devolution, little-Englanders of UKIP.  It would be nice, but it wouldn’t be true.

After the disaster of 2009 when Labour came second with 20.3%, the vote recovered to 28.1% and first place, still about 18,000 short of a second seat. The other three seats were won by the Tories, Plaid Cymru,  (scraping home in fourth place), and UKIP, which came second.  While the UKIP vote in Wales was lower than anywhere except London and Scotland, the swing in Wales to UKIP, its vote increasing from 12.8% to 27.6%, was the highest.  Where Labour won, in ten of the twenty-two authorities,  UKIP came second. Where Plaid won,  in four authorities, UKIP pushed Labour into third place. UKIP won six authorities, three of which, Wrexham, Flint and the Vale of Glamorgan, should have been won by Labour. The best news was that the far-right  vote (BNP and Britain First) was down to a combined 1.9% from 5.4%, tempered by the fact that many of its voters  may have migrated to UKIP. The  combined far left parties did little more than confuse a few people.

The reasons for UKIP’s success in Wales  are  broadly the same as elsewhere, albeit with Welsh peculiarities: dissatisfaction with the Westminster parties  (the Liberal-Democrats, collapsing from 10.7% to 3.9%),  weeks of virtually uncritical media coverage and the scapegoating atmosphere against immigrants whipped up by the Tories to try to neutralize the UKIP threat to their own vote.  UKIP was helped by an ignorance or indifference to many of its policies on public services and workers’ rights and its opposition to Welsh devolution. As was the  case elsewhere in the European Union,  voters gave the benefit of the doubt to parties claiming to be against ‘business as usual’ Many people who voted for UKIP must have done so in the belief that it was in some way anti-austerity.

Without a convincing, clear anti-austerity narrative,  and without an adequate challenge (or indeed any challenge at all) to UKIP’s anti-immigration rhetoric and myth-peddling (Blaenau Gwent, where UKIP scored 30.2% has a population which is 99.1% white, for example), Labour was always vulnerable.

Labour’s  failure, over the course of the campaign, to challenge UKIP, on the assumption that it was merely a party of Thatcher-loving golf club bores which threatened only the Tories was as much  a failure of Welsh Labour as the UK party. A sign of  how wrong the party leadership got it was the result in Merthyr Tydfil where UKIP was a close second. The Tories are an irrelevance in Merthyr; those UKIP votes must have come from Labour supporters.

There are more serious and chronic failings to consider.  Many constituency parties in Wales, including  many where UKIP did well, are small, ageing and moribund. Labour may have large majorities but that vote is soft, and vulnerable to UKIP’s populism.

Wales lacks a robust and informative media in which the political reality of modern Wales can properly be analysed and debated. Wales’ only national newspaper, the Western Mail, has a small and declining circulation; otherwise, the people of Wales are at the mercy of the London press, or on the parish-pump local papers. Because of the topography many areas in east and central Wales receive television broadcasts from England; recent  editions of BBC’s Question Time broadcast from Wales have been reduced to a farce because  whoever  commissions panel members appears to be blissfully unaware that Wales has its own government.

Although that government has retained a publicly funded and provided NHS, in the tradition of Bevan, sparing Welsh from the nightmare of insolvency and fragmentation facing the NHS in England, it is shocking, though perhaps unsurprising given the above, that according to a recent opinion poll, 43% of  people in Wales thought the UK government ran the NHS and 31% thought it ran education. Given all these circumstances,  it is unsurprising that UKIP’s version of the truth remained largely unchallenged.

Some of UKIP’s vote will melt away in 2015, and the revelations now emerging  about the MEP may damage UKIP, but if Labour’s campaign  is as muddled and inept as this one, much of it is here to stay.

This article appears in the July 2014 issue of Labour Briefing magazine.

Labour Policy-Making Needs Democracy

by Darren Williams

March saw the publication of eight documents from Labour’s policy commissions, which collectively represent a supposed initial draft of next year’s general election manifesto. They are subject to consultation until 13 June, with CLPs entitled to submit up to ten amendments in total and up to four on any one document. National Policy Forum reps from each region will then consider and prioritise the amendments received ahead of a meeting of the full NPF on 18-20 July.

These papers raise wider questions about the extent to which it is worthwhile seeking to intervene in the policy process.

The introduction of Partnership in(to) Power (PiP) in 1997 was widely recognised as an attempt by the Blair leadership to limit democratic decision-making within the party, diverting policy debate away from annual conference through the labyrinthine processes of the NPF.  Defenders of PiP – by no means all of them stooges of the leadership – point out that the old system allowed for meaningful input into policy only once a year, excluded non-GMC delegates from any real influence, limited CLPs to a single motion annually and subjected those motions to the vagaries of compositing. In addition, there was no guarantee that the leadership would even act on conference policy (although this, like most of the other criticisms, is symptomatic of a dysfunctional democratic culture, more than a specific policy mechanism).

In contrast, we are told, PiP allows all members to have their say – collectively and individually – over the full range of policy and provides repeated opportunities for discussion and input over the course of a rolling four-year policy programme.  But, while discussions do undoubtedly take place, those party bodies that have taken the time and trouble to participate have frequently been left wondering what has happened to the comments and proposals that they have submitted.

The introduction, in 2010, of OMOV for the election of CLP delegates to the NPF resulted in the centre-left winning more seats than in the previous elections, conducted among conference delegates and subject to the illicit influence of right-wing party officials. In Wales, we swept the board and sought to engage positively with the NPF’s work – but this was not easy. At the first two full NPF meetings, six months apart, we were presented with documents full of flimsy New Labour ‘analysis’. The same complaints were made (and not just from the left) about issues like the lack of an audit trail for CLP submissions and the same assurances were given by Forum chair, Peter Hain, that things would be different in future. Moreover, our own input was limited as we did not automatically get to sit on a policy commission but had to face a further election, with seats available for only a minority of CLP reps.

Since Angela Eagle took over as chair in 2012, the NPF has become somewhat more transparent and responsive and its discussions more open and less stage-managed. All reps can now sit on a policy commission – although it is not easy to participate when meetings are held in London on weekdays, in working hours. The establishment of the ‘Your Britain’ website allows uncensored comments to be posted about all aspects of policy. The question remains, however: how much impact does the NPF actually have on party policy? In four full meetings since 2010, not a single vote has been taken on a matter of policy. No attempt is made to test the degree of support commanded by the proposals that have been submitted.

Meanwhile, a parallel ‘Policy Review’ has been taking place, involving groups of shadow ministers and co-opted advisers, under the direction of Jon Cruddas MP; in this process, NPF reps play no part. This has resulted in two lengthy booklets: One Nation Economy and One Nation Society. Along the way, shadow ministers have also felt free to announce publicly policy initiatives never discussed by the NPF.

Those NPF reps who have managed to take part in policy commission meetings have, in recent months, had some input into the eight policy papers that have now been published. But it is notable that the key statements in these documents reflect – sometimes to the letter – the relevant sections of the ‘One Nation’ booklets. It is clear that the parliamentary leadership is driving policy formation.  

This does not mean the left should abstain from promoting amendments to the documents – especially on key issues like Trident – as this is an opportunity to build wider support for socialist policies, even when we have little expectation of them being adopted. But all our experience with the NPF reinforces the need for us to fight for democratic reforms, including the restoration of conference sovereignty over party policy.

This article first appeared in the May 2014 edition of Labour Briefing magazine.