This week has seen the provisional local government settlement for 2018-19 published. While most would acknowledge this is an important matter, it is also difficult to pretend it is the sequin studded glamorous announcement of the political year. Yet, much like a certain Saturday night television programme, it does tend to induce awkwardly delivered choreography. For every year, we seem to go through the same political dance. On this occasion, the budget for 21 of the 22 Welsh Councils is to be reduced. The Labour-run Welsh Government predictably blame the Conservative-run UK Government’s focus on austerity. The Conservative opposition in the Assembly blame the Welsh Government saying “they have the tools to do the job” and pointing out that what arrives in Cardiff Bay is a block grant for all devolved expenditure which is uprated compared to expenditure per head in England. The Council Leaders response as to who to blame tends to vary a little depending on which party is in power. Although it is not unknown for some of the strong-minded Labour councillors to be blunt in dealing with their Cardiff Bay colleagues.
This dance is tiresome. It stems from a governance structure which encourages finger-pointing in another direction and blame passing. There is some truth to all of the criticism of rival parties and institutions, but it all feels as if the primary objective is to score political points while not doing anything to alter the system which makes it the default setting. To be a Council Leader is to be in a big role serving tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people with a huge budget to work with. Of course, everyone would like more money in the budget, but even within the constraints there appears to be a lack of civic leadership among the partisan councils of Wales unlike what is emerging in the English mayoral cities. One step to encourage this would be for the Welsh Government to devolve greater fundraising powers to local authorities. Of course, this is not likely to raise sums to run whole departmental budgets, but it could top up funds. The current model of disempowered councils reliant on either a handout from the Welsh Government or taxing their citizens ever more money for ever less services, a poor transaction experience in anyone’s books, looks set to continue and so will the choreographed blame game.
The failure to radically reform local government after Labour councillors put the brakes on two separate proposals from their Assembly colleagues to combine councils into between 6 and 12 authorities makes it even more difficult for services to be delivered in a new way while constrained by a widely accepted to be outdated 22 authority structure. At some stage the sustainability of the model must be challenged. It will upset some, but the electorate deserve better than watching the local government settlement blame-game dance take place year after year.
Commissioner sets the tone for the future
Wales’ Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe, is making people sit up and take notice. At the time of her appointment, critics noted her rise through the ranks of the Labour Party before landing the politically independent role. The broad remit is a daunting challenge for any one person and it is this which has brought her into disagreement with the Welsh Government, and this week, the CBI over her opposition to both the much talked of, expensively consulted upon, and still nowhere near being built M4 Relief Road and also a consultation relating to a semi-conductor hub. The charge from the CBI is that Howe is prioritising the environmental component of her role over the relevance of economic sustainability. She will need to address this matter and to demonstrate a balanced approach so that economic growth and environmental and community wellbeing can be delivered simultaneously. The Commissioner is keen to emphasise that “business as usual” must be challenged in line with the Future Generations Act (2015) but care will need to be taken to avoid the risk that the role of Future Generations Commissioner comes to scrutinise and reject important economic drivers rather than shape and stimulate alternatives.
What is clear is that as the first holder of this potentially hugely significate role, Howe is giving the Commissioner’s position a strong standing among the instruments of devolved Wales and the teeth needed to challenge the Welsh Government where she deems it appropriate. If, after twenty years of the Welsh Government tweaking policy interrupted by the rare big announcement, Wales is to really demonstrate the benefits of devolution and set out a distinctly different approach to the rest of the UK, then surely a strong, independent Future Generations Commissioner is going to be have a very important part to play. The big picture is encouraging, which is something to cheer you up next time you are sat in a traffic jam on the M4.