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Welsh local government has power and influence envied by its English counterparts. Jon Hanlon reports...
Welsh local government has power and influence envied by its English counterparts. Jon Hanlon reports

When the Welsh Assembly first opened, detractors claimed it had barely more powers than a parish council - but in the intervening years it has been moving further away from Westminster.

First minister Rhodri Morgan has now set up

a cross-party commission to look at giving Wales greater powers, such as passing primary legislation.

It seems inevitable the commission's findings will be a resounding 'yes' to more powers for Wales and, if assemblies are popping up across England, it would be hard for Westminster to refuse.

The assembly has little power compared to the governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Assembly member David Melding (Con) says: 'It [the Welsh Assembly Government] inhabits the constitutional grey zone of executive devolution with powers to determine secondary legislation. The scope for secondary legislative powers is determined by each individual act of Parliament. Such conferred powers can range from next to nothing to nearly everything.'

It became clear that the well-documented disillusionment of many people living in Wales was to be addressed when the assembly subtly added the word 'government' to its name.

Mr Morgan is keen to stress the assembly's achievements, such as free bus passes for pensioners and disabled people and the scrapping of statutory key stage one tests in schools.

The assembly has rejected the idea of foundation hospitals and university fees. Other areas of divergence with Westminster have particular resonance with local government.

These include a different approach to pay, an ethical framework and codes of conduct for councillors, an increased role for councils in the 22 proposed local health boards and a fourth option in terms of political management models.

That so much post-devolution change has been about local government reflects the fact that it is the main employer in many areas and accounts for 40% of public expenditure as well as large segments of the assembly's education and housing budgets. It is also a tribute to the way the Welsh Local Government Association has adapted to devolution and worked with the assembly in making changes.

The association has helped slice through the bureaucracy of mistrust - its lobbying led to outlawing of best value and comprehensive performance assessments and their replacement with the Wales Programme for Improvement.

The Welsh local government white paper, Freedom and responsibility in local government, made a series of proposals which would have been welcomed elsewhere, not least a commitment to carry out a complete review of specific grants.

This commitment followed an agreement between the assembly and Welsh local government to remove earmarked funding from the general revenue settlement for 2001-02 and 2002-03.

Since devolution, Welsh local government has effectively been able to influence central policy-making to a far greater degree than in England.

A report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says: 'Collectively local government, primarily through the WLGA, has been able to influence the assembly on significant issues. There is a striking contrast with English central/local relations.'

WLGA head of strategic policy Steve Thomas says: 'In England central government is more remote from the more numerous councils and Labour ministers, unlike their Welsh counterparts, do not see local government as an important political constituency.'

The extent of influence exerted by councils is evident from remarks made by local government minister Edwina Hart following the announcement of the comprehensive spending review.

She said: 'In many areas we believe that this [public sector reform] can be achieved without necessarily introducing a plethora of inspection and audit regimes because the relationship between the Welsh Assembly Government and the deliverers of public services is closer in Wales.'

Wales has been reluctant to adopt the Westminster line on private funding.

Education minister Jane Davidson said: 'In a small country with relatively small unitary councils, with many distinctive features and circumstances, there would be real risks in a wholesale shift to extensive and untested measures delivered solely through the private or other sectors without most careful consideration. As a matter of policy that reliance on the private sector has been ruled out.'

The lack of central doctrine from the assembly and an emphasis on close working means Welsh local government has been empowered since devolution. Regular dialogue between Ms Hart and WLGA leader Harry Jones (Lab) has undoubtedly contributed to this. The WLGA enjoys a close and somewhat advisory role with the assembly.

Welsh local government has the ear of ministers at Westminster via the lobbying activities of the LGA in London. The WLGA therefore has some leverage over primary legislation at Westminster, which it can influence further when it is being tweaked for Wales by the assembly.

Mr Morgan's commission may well find that further powers should be devolved to the assembly - but Welsh local government is one step ahead.

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