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CALL FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENT MODERNISATION DEBATE TO MOVE ON FROM POLITICAL STRUCTURES

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WLGA leader Harry Jones today appealed to the national assembly to give local government in Wales the opportunity t...
WLGA leader Harry Jones today appealed to the national assembly to give local government in Wales the opportunity to deal with the weight of legislation it must implement and to put into place the necessary cultural and structural changes needed to achieve this.
Addressing a conference in Cardiff, which focused on local government modernisation, Sir Harry said:
'I regret that a process aimed at democratic renewal and the provision of accountable, responsive services at the local level has become bogged down with debates about structures.
The devolution settlement in Wales must be characterised by the delivery of better outcomes for the people we serve and empowering local communities, not by initiative fatigue. If the Assembly has any further structural changes planned for Welsh local government I would call for these ideas to be put aside.
It is time to let local government deal with the weight of legislation it must implement and put into place the necessary cultural and other changes needed to achieve this.'
Further commenting on the modernisation agenda set out in the Local Government Act 2000 and by the national assembly, Sir Harry stressed that modernisation in local government was far broader than cabinet government.
Sir Harry said:
'I have always viewed the new political structures as a means to an end, the real prize being the development of community leadership and the duty to do anything to promote the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of communities.
Policy agreements are an expression of this with outcomes based targets agreed between the assembly and local government at the local level aimed at tackling some of the key issues such as cutting the number of people who leave school with no qualifications.
Many of us recognise the need to find ways to encourage and support a more diverse cross-section of the population to become councillors including the young, people from deprived areas, minorities and all under-represented groups. I therefore very much welcome the work being undertaken to develop a Generic Equalities standard for local government and the possibility of an Equalities Unit for Local Government to promote equalities work.
The consistent innovation and experiment that has been a feature of the modernisation process in Wales is clearly based on finding better ways to provide leadership to our communities.'
Over 100 local authority leaders, cabinet members, chief executives and officers attended the conference, which was also addressed by Edwina Hart, national assembly minister for finance, local government and communities.
The conference at the Angel Hotel, Cardiff was organised jointly by the Welsh Local Government Association, the National Assembly for Wales, District Audit and Syniad, and coincided with the end of consultation on various aspects of the Local Government Act 2001.
SPEECH BY HARRY JONES, LEADER, WLGA
TO THE JOINT NATIONAL ASSEMBLY, WLGA, SYNIAD AND DISTRICT AUDIT SEMINAR 28TH FEBRUARY 2001
'I am pleased to address this Conference as Leader of the Welsh Local Government Association and it is a pleasure to speak alongside Edwina Hart AM AC. I congratulate her on the positive start she has made in understanding the role of local government as a force for good.
The last time I spoke to such a seminar in June 2000 I thanked local authorities in Wales who have the led the way in re-defining the purpose of local government. The consistent innovation that has been a feature of this process in Wales is based on finding better ways to provide leadership to your communities.
At that time there was no way of predicting that the modernisation route that we were travelling was going to be subject to a major detour. I do not intend to dwell on these factors today. There is a fourth option available for Welsh authorities and it is a matter for local management whether this is a chosen model. The same applies to the concept of elected mayor or leader and cabinet.
What I do regret is that a process aimed at democratic renewal and outward-looking, accountable and responsive services at the local level has again become bogged down with debates about structures. If the Assembly has any further structural changes planned for Welsh local government I would call for these ideas to be put aside. It is time to let local government deal with the weight of legislation it must implement and achieve the necessary cultural change.
The devolution settlement in Wales must be characterised by the delivery of better outcomes for the people we serve and empowering local communities, not by initiative fatigue. There are debates of real substance that we need to have on the modernisation agenda and the forthcoming months must see energy dedicated to these matters. I would personally list issues such as -
* The question of Member/Officer relations
* The search for more freedom and flexibilities for local government
* The development of new constitutions
* The public consultation requirements of the Act
* The role of full Councils
* The role of Area Committees
* The ethical framework
* Most importantly the implementation of community leadership and community planning
I have always viewed the new political structures as a means to an end, the real prize being the development of community leadership and the duty to do anything to promote the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of communities. Policy Agreements are an expression of this with outcomes based targets agreed between the Assembly and local government at the local level aimed at tackling some of the key issues such as cutting the number of people who leave school with no qualifications.
The demise of the committee system and the development of new scrutiny roles have been deeply unsatisfying for some local politicians. Effective scrutiny still often appears as an aspiration rather than a reality. It should be a powerful system of holding the executive and other agencies to account, but often it is little more than a succession of weak reports and rubber stamping decisions. At heart this poses major questions about the future role of councillors.
Many of us recognise the need to find ways to encourage a more diverse cross-section of the population to become Councillors from all sectors of the community. I therefore very much welcome the work being undertaken to develop a Generic Equalities standard for local government and the possibility of an Equalities Unit for Local Government to promote equalities work.
The recently announced study on members allowances will also examine the various issues which might hinder people becoming councillors and ways to overcome them such as paying employers to release staff; pensions; e-mail access, claims for using own computers, travel and subsistence. This is also to be welcomed.
Other contributions on this subject are more controversial. The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) has recently suggested that there are too many councillors. I must say that this is intervention is ill timed and unhelpful. One recent report went further and argued that in councillor terms 'local government could become the preserve of the unemployed, underemployed, the retired or the disaffected intent on anarchy'!
You will be pleased to know that I do not share these views. Local democratic renewal rests on the credibility of local councillors and the public support they receive. Community leadership offers a combination of the traditional representative for local people with an expanding advocate role for councillors well beyond the range of local government services.
Many will say that they already perform such a role; I would congratulate them on this, but say that we need more of the same. We must be honest and recognise that a significant proportion of the population have little or no interest in local politics as currently constructed and that addressing this problem is the great challenge for political parties of whatever persuasion.
Community leadership and policy agreements offers a mechanism to do this in partnership with all relevant bodies at the local level. It is not about councils divesting themselves of services as some have suggested nor decimating their councillor base. At its core is the concept that Councils leadership role is built on their elected base and also on their multi functional service role. A Council without responsibility for services is a talking shop.
Let us also not forget that the ideas behind community leadership, community planning and policy agreements did not come from either Parliament or the Assembly - they came from Welsh local government. In the light of recent events especially the appalling job losses at Corus, the council role in terms of bringing together all agencies to tackle community regeneration will be a key test of our ability to deliver the leadership our communities need.
In broad terms the Assembly's consultation on Executive arrangements has got the balance right by stressing local choice as the key consideration. Anyone who reads the DETR guidance on New Constitutions will quickly realise how wide the diversity of possible options and variations are. You will also gauge the sheer level of work required to achieve this task.
To take one example I welcome the emphasis on the role of area committees. My authority has actively built such forums over recent years to provide sounding boards for local opinion and tackle ward issues. This is not an easy option and may not be 'right' for all authorities but it does provide 'checks and balances'. It ensures that some executive power is dispersed and most importantly a wider member role than the pure scrutiny function.
Turning now to Cabinets; for those of us who have created Executive's over the past two years it has been a huge period of change and learning. I do smile on occasions when people debate whether Executive councillors should be full time or not. There are Councillors who are currently working in excess of 50-hour weeks and who are sacrificing their own careers to do this. The fact is that the Local Government Act 2000 with the onus that it places on councillors to take material decisions and the liabilities that flow from this radically transforms the role of councillors.
Many officers would readily admit that more examination is needed on how democratic leadership is to relate to professional management. These features will introduce new dynamics into the local authority's governance, which the Constitution must be capable of accommodating.
The death knell has been sounded for the days of the gifted amateur. To ensure that the new political leadership is fully equipped to handle the total direction of the resources and responsibilities of local government is an immense task. Leading a modern local authority and its communities demands substantial investment in both members and managers and recognition that proper levels of reimbursement should be attached to the weight of responsibility.
The recent proposed changes to the health service witnesses for the first time in 50 years a real measure of local authority involvement in the management of the health service. How many councillors are currently experts on the labyrinthine structures of the NHS? New legislation is arising from the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry and the Macpherson Report, how many Cabinet members are currently examining the implications of the Race Relations Amendments Act 2000?
These questions are not asked to be smug, but to alert members that the Executive role demands commitment, knowledge and time. It demands recognition that a new breed of local politician must emerge, one that can fully draw on professional advice but also build the political and community vision for the benefit of local people.
The real inspectors of local government are our electors; they are the true judges of performance. Modernisation offers them accountable and transparent political leadership. They in turn will give communities the leadership they need, and provide the management structures for the delivery of quality local services
This leads to my last point. Welsh local government is re-inventing local governance and also impacting on the devolution settlement. The damaging effect of hypothecation has ended. But the exact balance between what is decided nationally and what is determined locally is always going to be a matter of debate, argument, and change. This is the reality of government, politics and politicians.
I am not a wide-eyed idealist. I accept that tension of some kind between these two levels of government is not only inevitable, but can often be productive. What we should each seek of the other is a mature partnership based on trust, respect and consultation. But the onus is also on us to use our new freedoms to deliver the right outcomes.
The modernisation project built on community leadership is one that offers the opportunity to re-energise local politics. Even as I say this there are sceptical thoughts in my mind and I am sure in yours. But when these emerge the question you must ask, 'is what are the implications of failure? In all honesty they are too disastrous to contemplate. We cannot afford to fail.
We all know that Local Government has suffered from a feeling of decline and often felt doomed to languish as an agent of central government. If a new and vibrant type of local governance is to emerge it will be built on the foundations that are being laid in the Local Government Act 2000. My political education grew in an age when people were keen to become local councillors and a spirit of civic pride dominated. This is no longer the case. The framework is in place for a renaissance in local government. Are you prepared to move forward?'
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