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LOCAL GOVERNMENT IN WALES AFTER DEVOLUTION

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Welsh local government minister Edwina Hart's speech to the LGA conference in Bournemouth today: ...
Welsh local government minister Edwina Hart's speech to the LGA conference in Bournemouth today:

'I am please to be able to address this workshop on how devolution has affected the government of Wales.

The first Blair Government provided a substantial devolution of power to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. This was the biggest constitutional change in Britain since the introduction of the right to vote for all men and women. Governing Britain will never be the same again.

Tony Blair inherited the most centralised state in the western world. His Government has set us on the path which recognises that a modern democracy is a decentralised democracy.

In each country the devolution was different - reflecting the different circumstances, history and aspirations.

In some ways the devolution to Welsh Assembly was more limited than that to Northern Ireland and Scotland. However, it is more substantial than generally understood - in my view, far more substantial than that being considered for regions in England.

The Welsh Assembly has executive responsibility, including control of financial resources, for the whole of

- local government and the health service;

- for economic development, tourism and agriculture;

- for planning, housing and transport;

- for all of education and training.

It is only the exclusion of home office services which makes the breadth of devolution to Wales narrower than that in Northern Ireland and in Scotland.

The Welsh Assembly has secondary legislative powers. The nature of these powers is little understood; but in practice they are extensive. Those of you in local government will recognise that Acts of Parliament give a broad definition of the law - but the detail and the real bite of the law usually comes in orders, regulations and guidance. It is these regulations and guidance that the Welsh Assembly controls in Wales.

We have just appointed Lord Ivor Richard to lead a Commission to review the devolution settlement in Wales during its first term. I suspect he may conclude that the difficulty in secondary legislative powers lies not in their scope, which is significant; but in the complexity and uncertainty that surrounds them.

The Welsh Assembly has no tax raising power. As expenditure increases in England we get a consequential increase in our block grant, calculated on the basis of the population in Wales.

The first Assembly term has been in a period of real growth in public expenditure; and the lack of fiscal powers has not been an issue. If it ever became an issue, I would be opposed to the English regional proposal of a precept on local authorities' council tax - this would, in my view, confuse accountabilities and create unnecessary antagonisms.

This workshop is concerned not just with the nature of the Welsh Assembly's powers but also with understanding how these powers have been exercised in relation to local government.

It is necessary to understand a little bitabout the nature of Wales.

We are a nation of 3 million people. We make no apologies for our small size. It compares with many other nations in the world and gives us many advantages; but we should remember that we are about the same population size as the West Midlands and only fraction of that of London.

We differ from many English regions in the way our population is distributed around Wales. Our biggest settlement, Cardiff, has 300,000 people. We have only four settlements bigger than 100.000 - Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and Wrexham.

It is at this point I should welcome the fact that the Queen used the occasion of her Jubilee to give much deserved city status to our third largest settlement - Newport.

By British standards Newport is a small city - 140.000. Like the rest of Wales it is small but smart - with the sort of leadership that creates confidence and potential. (Sir Harry, I think I have now done justice to the briefing you gave me for this speech).

Newport is small by the standards of England and Scotland - but it is large by the standards of Wales. A geographer in a Welsh university once gave me the remarkable statistic that two-thirds of the population of Wales live in settlements of less than 30,000 - we are a nation of small towns and villages.

To be effective our system of government in Wales, central and local government, needs to reflect the smallness of our nation and the smallness of our communities.

We have an admirably simple local government structure - 22 unitary local authorities.

Given the size of our population settlements, it is not surprising that these local authorities are, on average, relatively small by the standards of England and Scotland. Most of our unitary local authorities have populations of around a 100,000 people.

The relationship between the central and local government in Wales is a relationship between one Assembly and 22 local authorities.

We have a Partnership Council in which virtually all the council leaders and Assembly ministers meet around one table and negotiate ways forward. We know each other. We know that we rely on each other.

The equivalent relationship in England is between half a dozen Whitehall Departments and over 400 local authorities. The scale of that relationship must make it very different to Wales.

This difference in scale has a direct impact on our policies and our relationships.

For instance, we do not envisage significant specialisation in our secondary schools. Our geography does not allow it. Most families in Wales have few, if any, choices of secondary school. What they want - and what the Assembly and local authority must provide - is high quality, community based comprehensive schools.

In this respect, the devolution settlement has allowed us to reflect the needs of Wales . Before devolution, policies invented in Whitehall departments were imposed on Wales as if it were no more than a fringe colony. This is no longer happening - our government and society is all the better for this change.

We are embarking on a radical transformation of our health service. Next year health authorities will be abolished. The Assembly is taking responsibility for the structure of secondary and tertiary services.

However, responding to that special geography of Wales the foundation of our health service will lie in Local Health Boards. These 22 boards will be co-terminous with local authorities and will succeed through sharing objectives and integrating service delivery with local authorities. It is at this level that we will make real health gains and respond to the real needs of people.

I recognise the commitment and deep sense of responsibility that local authorities are bringing to their new relationship with Local Health Boards. The Assembly is committed to supporting the efforts of local authorities as they develop this role.

Our health reforms illustrate the potential in a small nation for making the different parts of government work together.

In recognising this potential for working together, I believe that Welsh local government has been at the forefront of developing the way forward for community strategies. This is why we worked so hard to ensure that the primary legislation made it a duty on every local authority to develop a community strategy.

In our small nation we can the make these strategies a foundation stone to good governance.

In each local authority area we envisage business, voluntary organisations, health organisations, government agencies all sharing a vision and committing themselves to supporting that shared vision.

We will ensure that our national strategies in the Assembly and in our agencies not only lead but also follow from the needs and the imagination developed in each local area.

We have made it clear to our agencies: the Welsh Development Agency, the Tourist Board, Arts Council, Sports Council, Training Agency - that they must be engaged in each community strategy. I will be bringing together all the relevant Assembly Ministers and Agency Chairs to monitor their involvement in community strategies.

Central and local Government sharing objectives and sharing responsibility - this is the basis of the 22 policy agreements which have been signed by each local authority and the Assembly

Together we agreed the key aims shared between central and local government - things like better attainment by school children; caring for more elderly people in their homes, less landfill of waste, more use of public transport.

For each of these aims, each local authority has agreed with the Assembly a target for its achievement over three years. I have provided an incentive in the grant system for both setting the targets and achieving them.

Working on the scale of Wales we can have a comprehensive approach which allows each local authority to negotiate its own targets.

Because the policy agreements give me as Minister a shared ownership of the outputs being achieved by local authorities, I am able to loosen the bureaucratic controls on inputs and process - no hypothecation of the revenue support grant, fewer specific grants, fewer statutory plans.

In Wales about 4% of the grant support to local authorities is in the form of specific grants; in England it is 12%. Ministers at the Welsh Assembly can support this distinction if the policy agreements are seen to give them the assurances they need over the outputs of government in Wales.

Throughout the United Kingdom all levels of government are being challenged by public opinion to improve our ability to deliver high quality, cost-effective services.

As I understand the approach to improvement being developed in England, it relies on auditors and inspectors to provide a classification of authorities into the good, the bad and the indifferent. There will be incentives for improvement to those authorities which are succeeding according to the evidence.

If I tried exactly this approach in Wales, I would fail. The closeness of our relationship is such that if I discriminated between authorities in such a systematic way, all the effort that should go into improving services would go into recriminations. Authorities would go to war with each other to an even greater extent than they would war with me - the public and the reputation of government would suffer.

We are developing an approach to improving performance in service delivery which seeks to take advantage of the small scale of Wales. The first year of best value had an over reliance on external inspection with too little ownership by local or national politicians. Too often the result was endless concern with detail when the real problems were being ignored.

We now have an agreement that every local authority in Wales will conduct a robust examination of its core management process and bring forward its own Improvement Plan. This examination will involve a challenging external element from other local authorities and from the Audit Commission.

Again, in taking this way forward we are taking advantage of the scale of Wales. We can organise 22 corporate reviews and share the information in a way that that would be difficult with 400 authorities.

You may be asking yourself whether all this closeness and collaboration actually works. I am well aware that there are views that we in Wales are lacking in rigour. I deny that. In working closely together we will continue to challenge and check each other - in the closeness of Wales any serious problems tend to become public knowledge quite quickly, and success is quickly shared.

Recently Cardiff University published evidence that performance in Welsh local government is at least as good as that in English local government and has been improving just us quickly since 1997.

I am not complacent about that. I want to ensure that there is continued improvement in service delivery which delivers demonstrable benefits to all people in Wales.

This will be achieved by all of Welsh local government working with the Assembly Government and with auditors to provide both continuous challenge and support.

Two recent innovations provide further illustration to our distinctively collaborative approach. In order to share responsibility for service improvement we need better quality data on what is being achieved.

The WLGA and the Assembly Government have therefore created with shared ownership a Local Government Data Unit. No longer should we waste our efforts in disagreeing over the accuracy of the relevant information.

I am convinced that information on performance is not useful unless it can be broken down into an understanding of how government acts on an equal basis according to gender, race, ability, sexual orientation. It is because we need to share the agenda of equal opportunities between central and local government that I have supported the establishment of the Equalities Unit within the WLGA.

We have not solved every problem in Wales because of three years of devolution. Nevertheless, I am convinced that we are taking positive steps.

There are risks and, no doubt, rocks in the water. I will end with a challenge to the Local Government Association and its approach to devolution. Promoting diversity is a core value of the LGA - you all believe that doing things differently is a means to doing things well.

However, I have noticed that the reaction of the WLGA to an announcement in England can be to say - 'they've got a new grant, we must have one'. The LGA reaction to a policy in Wales is to rush to a Whitehall minister saying 'why can't we have what Wales has got'. The end result of this 'MeToo-ism' can be to create the conformity we all want to avoid.

We should all have the maturity to recognise that devolution means that things can and should be done differently in the different parts of the United Kingdom. We should learn from each other but not mimic each other. We should not assume that what works in Wales will work in England, or the other way round.'

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