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
North Wales Commissioner to stand down
PLAID CYMRU Leader Adam Price has paid tribute to North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones who has announced he is standing down at the next election.Mr Jones of Plaid Cymru is the region’s second-ever police and crime commissioner and has been PCC since 2016, and the next election had originally been due to take place last May but the vote was put back a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Arfon Jones said: “The main reason I have decided not to seek re-election is that I will have been working for more than 46 years by the time of the next election.“As a result of the pandemic, the term of office was extended for a year. I started thinking about this last May but I didn’t talk to anybody else about it until three months ago.
“I have achieved a lot in the past five years and it is going to be more difficult to make a difference next time because of the pandemic, Brexit and the fact that the term of office has been curtailed to three years.”
Plaid Cymru Leader Adam Price MS said: “We are indebted to Arfon Jones for his tremendous contribution as the Police and Crime Commissioner for north Wales.“From launching Checkpoint Cymru – a project to address the underlying causes of offending; commissioning over £2 million worth of services to support victims of crime; leading the charge in tackling domestic violence and to more recently keeping our communities safe during the Coronavirus pandemic, Arfon’s considerable achievements in office are a testament to his commitment to the constituents he serves.
“On behalf of Plaid Cymru, I would like to thank Arfon Jones for his contribution to Welsh public life and send him our warmest wishes for the future.Plaid Cymru Chair Alun Ffred Jones added: “From safeguarding the most vulnerable in our society, protecting our communities and preventing offending and reoffending, Arfon Jones’s tireless work has helped make North Wales a safer place.
“A true public servant, he will be remembered for representing the people of north Wales with determination and for fighting to ensure that the voices of victims of crime are heard within the justice system.
“On behalf of Plaid Cymru, I wish him all the best for the future.”Mr Jones succeeded Winston Roddick in the Police and Crime Commissioner role and had a 12,000 majority over Labour’s David Taylor in the last Police and Crime Commissioner elections in 2016.The elections for the role of Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales are scheduled for Thursday, May 6, the same day as voters head to the polls in elections to the Welsh Parliament.
Taskforce returns empty homes to use
MORE than 500 applications have been received to bring empty homes back in to use through Welsh Government’s £10 million Valleys Taskforce Empty Homes Grant Scheme, Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport Lee Waters has announced.
Phase One of the initiative was launched a year ago by the Deputy Minister, and Chair of the Valleys Taskforce, after a successful roll-out across Rhondda Cynon Taf.The scheme is open to homeowners across the extended Valleys Taskforce, which runs from Carmarthenshire in West Wales to Torfaen in East Wales. Its boundaries were also extended last year to include the Gwendraeth and Amman Valleys.
Phase Two of the scheme, launched in July 2020, will ensure even greater numbers of local businesses are used to bring empty homes back to life and incentivise applicants to use more energy-efficient measures within their renovations. Not only will this help to reduce carbon emissions it will also result in lower energy bills for future residents.
While the scheme will see some applicants going on to live in their refurbished properties, other properties will be brought in to use for social housing by Registered Social Landlords, helping to increase the supply of affordable housing.Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport Lee Waters said: “A year ago, I announced that following the success of a Rhondda Cynon Taf scheme, we were opening a £10 million Welsh Government Empty Homes Grant scheme across the whole of the Valleys Taskforce areas.“It is heartening to see that scheme progressing well, with over 500 applications already received and I hope many more to come.
Of course, this year has been challenging for everyone but despite the pandemic causing a delay on the scheme for many months, and the floods that impacted many Valleys areas, we have seen great progress.
Local authorities have worked hard to roll out this scheme in their areas and provide the necessary match funding to make this success and I would like to put on record my thanks for their hard work.“With strengthened criteria, which we developed collaboratively with local authorities and other stakeholders, this scheme has not only brought empty properties back in to use but has also supported the foundations of our local economies by providing work for small local businesses in the construction sector.
The retrofitting element also means it is supporting our decarbonisation agenda while also reducing energy bills for the future.“I look forward to seeing the full results of this Valleys Taskforce scheme and will work closely with the Minister for Housing and Local Government to use our learning to influence and develop a future empty homes schemes for the whole of Wales.”Mike Roberts, from Carmarthenshire, applied to Phase One of the scheme. He said: “My house had been empty for more than two years and desperately needed to be restored to a decent standard.“The Empty Homes Grant Scheme was a great help and allowed me to carry out essential works all at once.
“There was a formal process and a range of forms to complete but my grant was approved and the work has been done. I am delighted.”To be eligible for the Valleys Taskforce Empty Homes Scheme, homes need to have been empty for at least 6 months. Applicants to the scheme are also restricted to one grant per person and in cases where repair work exceeds £20,000, will have the option to apply for the Welsh Government’s Houses into Homes scheme.
Call to replace the Lords
OVERHAULING Parliament’s London-dominated second chamber would help empower the UK’s nations and regions, writes Willie Sullivan a senior director at the Electoral Reform Society.
It’s been a year since Boris Johnson’s victory in the 2019 general election, an election won with a commitment to ‘level up’ those communities left behind.
Since then, our politics has been shaken by a pandemic that has put pressure on the already strained constitutional settlement that holds the nations and regions of the UK together.
We’ve seen attention turned to local and regional government as well as the devolved administrations. We’ve seen clearly how the over-centralising nature of Westminster can hamper and undermine public trust. The video of Andy Burnham first hearing news of Greater Manchester’s Covid funding settlement at a live press conference will go down as a low point in Britain’s patchwork devolution framework.
This is all set to the backdrop of declining faith in our politics. At the same time as the PM was returning to Number 10 last winter, polling for the Electoral Reform Society showed that just 16% of the public believe politics is working well in the UK – and only 2% feel they have a significant influence over decision-making.
For a government publicly committed to a levelling up agenda, this democratic malaise must serve as a warning: it will take more than economic investment or shiny new infrastructure to remedy the feeling of powerlessness that many feel outside of Westminster.
Tackling that will require some long-overdue reform. The calls for a clear framework for devolution in the UK have become impossible to ignore in recent months. Even areas of England with mayors felt sidelined this year, but the picture was even worse elsewhere – with zero guarantees that local people would be consulted on changes that would affect their lives immeasurably.
There’s a good way to start empowering the UK’s nations and regions: overhauling Parliament’s unelected second chamber.
Abolishing the outdated and unaccountable House of Lords offers a chance to rebalance politics away from Westminster – and create a representative Senate of the Nations and Regions.
Recent Electoral Reform Society analysis found that nearly a quarter of peers are based in London, compared to just 13% of the UK public. Over half – 56% of peers – live in the capital, or the east and south-east of England, while peers in the east and west Midlands make up just 6% between them – leaving many areas in which the Conservatives won seats in the so-called ‘red wall’ woefully underrepresented.
It should be said, this is only peers we know about: more than 300 refuse to state even the country they live in (some live overseas), and hundreds more do not even provide a direct email address for people to get in touch and stand up for their areas.
All this undermines the government’s stated intention to ‘level up’ the regions, when we have a chamber that is skewed towards one patch of England.
Reforming this London-dominated second chamber is a rare issue that is highly popular across all parties. 71% of the UK public back an overhaul of the House of Lords, research showed this year. The issue cuts across Britain’s divides, with an overhaul backed by a majority of those who voted Conservative or Labour in the 2019 general election, and those who voted Leave or Remain in the EU referendum.
As well as levelling up representation – with peers elected using a fair, proportional voting system – a genuinely accountable second chamber could establish a guaranteed voice for the regions of the UK, to speak as one, to scrutinise legislation and our constitutional settlement with clear communities in mind. The UK remains one of the most centralised countries in Europe – and the archaic, power-hoarding set-up in Westminster has a big role to play in why this is.
The pandemic has shown just how important it is for those outside the capital to be truly heard. There are many reasons why voters had more confidence in their governments’ Covid responses more in Wales and Scotland, but having a stake – being genuinely ‘in it together’ makes a big difference.
This is a challenge to all parties, from Boris Johnson as he tries to plot a path for recovery for the UK, to Keir Starmer as he begins to outline his own view of devolution.
One thing’s clear: the London-dominated House of Lords is undermining the voice of local communities. A Senate of the Nations and Regions could be the gamechanger we need.
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