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WELSH LOCAL GOVERNMENT MINISTER'S SPEECH TO MODERNISATION CONFERENCE

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Speech by Edwina Hart, Welsh assembly local government minister. ...
Speech by Edwina Hart, Welsh assembly local government minister.
As all of you here know the Local Government Act 2000 did not come out of the blue.
Even before 1997 the Labour Party in opposition was working with many of you in developing a programme from transforming local government. The manifesto for the last general election promised that we would work for a renewal of local democracy.
There were extensive consultation papers and a white paper in 1998. There was a draft bill in 1999 and finally an Act last year. The national assembly has been consulting on the means of implementing the Act. The full implementation of the Act will take until the middle of next year.
Many of you at this conference will have spent the best part of a decade discussing, planning, testing, developing and implementing new approaches to local democracy. This Act represents a huge investment of energy by local government. It is a once in a generation opportunity to take local democracy forward, to make a real difference -let us all commit ourselves to making the most of this opportunity.
Many of you will remind me that I am something of a 'Jackie Come Lately' to this business of reforming local democracy. You have been working at it for so many years while I have only had responsibility for local government for a mere six months. What I have learned during those few months is your commitment to making things better.
I would not have predicted that an institution as large and established as local government would have the willingness to challenge and change itself in the way that I have seen in Welsh local government. I admire you for that.
When you started on this programme back in 1997 and 98, I was a working trade unionist and not a professional politician. My relationship with local government was as a citizen of Swansea and a user of local services.
From the outside I recognised what many of you knew from the inside - there was a deep and damaging malaise in local government. Aspects of this malaise included:
A decline in the civic status of the council and the councillor - a decline from the days when former generations of my family had been proud to hold locally elected office
A loss of faith in the ability of the councillor to respond to the needs of local people
A steady decline in the range of responsibilities of the council with the growth of quangos and the privatisation of public services
Fewer and fewer people showing any interest in being a councillor or even voting in local elections
Councils which were believed to be serving their own interests rather than serving the interests of their community
The absurdity of CCT which had led to a lack of development in the delivery of local services
Local people who had little interest in and less understanding of how councils made decisions
I recognise that there remained a residual respect and trust for the Council. When push comes to shove, people still expect their council to sort things out. When given the choice, people still tend to trust their council more than any alternative - but sometimes without obvious enthusiasm.
There was a decline. Some thought it was terminal. The Labour Government was committed to reversing that decline and I hope that we can all see the Local Government Act as an important part of that new future.
I believe that Part One of the Act represents a key to the new future for local government. It gives councils a general power to do those things which enhance the well being of their communities.
It creates a duty to work in partnership with others to develop shared strategies for taking local communities forward. The Assembly's Local Government Scheme, uniquely in the United Kingdom, commits the Assembly's agencies to cooperating in the development and implementation of local strategies.
This should allow councils to regain their proper position at the hub of their community.
It does not mean that we can turn the clock back a hundred years when councils directly provided all that the community needed - the gas, water and electricity; the trams and buses; the hospitals and poor relief; the houses and the colleges.
But we should be able to look forward to an era when the council is truly influential in the practice and development of local businesses, voluntary organisations and public agencies - as they respond to local needs.
It is in the spirit of this new era of local democracy that I believe we can appreciate and applaud the National Assembly's plans for the Welsh Health Service. We will abolish the five quangos that currently run the health service. The Assembly will take democratic and centralised responsibility for the strategic decisions that affect the whole of Wales and its various regions.
We will decentralise responsibility for identifying local health care needs and the potential for improving health to the Local Health Groups and the Local Health Alliances.
Local government will, I believe, never again directly deliver local health services; but in the Assembly's plans elected councillors will represent local people on Health Groups and Health Alliances in the shared planning and commissioning of health services. Through the enhanced Community Health Councils councillors will scrutinise and hold to account the deliverers of health services.
Part 3 of the Act makes provisions for codes of conduct and standards committees. It includes a distinctively Welsh approach to the external scrutiny of standards through the ombudsman. I believe that standards in local government are high. However, public confidence needs to be increased and these provisions should be seen as means of developing that confidence.
Part 4 of the Act concerns local elections. I am currently consulting on the proposal to separate by a year the Assembly elections from local government elections. I have received a range of different responses and once I have discussed those responses with my cabinet colleagues Iwill announce a decision.
I will soon announce a commission to review the local electoral systems in Wales. I recognise that this commission is not, for many of you, the most welcome institution to be established by the assembly.
I hope that you will at least recognise that there is a problem in falling electoral turn-outs and the lack of elections at all in over 25% of Wales. I do not know the answer to this problem but, because I value local democracy, I believe that an analysis of what may increase participation in elections is justified.
The review will include an appraisal of the merits of the current first past the post system - I suspect that those merits are stronger than some would suspect.
The review will consider systems of 'alternative' votes; which may have significant advantages when more than two parties compete for seats.
There will be an examination also of a variety of proportional systems.
I anticipate that the review team will make recommendations in 2002. If change is recommended and accepted by the National Assembly, such change would require primary legislation in Westminster and possibly a further review of warding arrangements.
In such circumstances it would be sensible to assume that the next local government elections will be conducted under the existing arrangements.
Your workshops today have concentrated on Part Two of the Act - the arrangements for the political management of your councils. Your pre-occupation is justified as we are still considering the best means of implementing this part of the Act.
Nevertheless we should all recognise that that Part Two is only a means to various ends - extending the democratic influencing of local people, develop community leadership and ensuring the accountability of service providers.
Part Two offers many options for political management. But for all options it requires that there is accountable and transparent decision making and effective scrutiny arrangements.
The act assumes that the existing arrangements cannot continue because there is not sufficient transparency of responsibility and neither is there sufficient rigour of scrutiny. I hope that you all recognise that the status quo is not an option.
The Act creates the option of an elected mayor. The evidence so far in Wales is that there is less enthusiasm for this form of personalised politics than there may be in parts of England.
So far the developments have been with various forms of cabinet government. All the evidence from your experiments has been that it is relatively easy to create cabinets; but it is far less easy to create the overview and scrutiny arrangements that can create the policy framework for cabinets and the effective check on the performance in implementation.
In responding to the consultation my aim will be to learn from your experience and ensure that the Assembly's statutory guidance does all that it can to assist the roles of the non-executive councillor.
The success of thebest value regime requires that there are always councillors capable of challenging established practice, representing the experiences of service users, and learning from other organisations. Such councillors are most likely to be outside of the executive and my objective is to extend their influence.
The consultation has created a well informed debate on the nature of open government. We all want to see decisions made in a public arena, with clear accountability and public access to the relevant information. We also recognise the need for private deliberation with access to impartial professional expertise. My task is to respond to the consultation by finding a balance to these competing demands.
According to your point of view the development of political arrangements has been diverted or liberated by the late introduction to the Local Government Act of alternative arrangements.
These arrangements were introduced into the Act by the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords with the active support of the LGA.
The internal politics of the assembly bound me to introducing the so-called Fourth Option. The consultation responses confirms my view that we have been successful in not undermining the positive development of cabinet models in most Welsh authorities.
We have added to the options for those many rural authorities without strong single party majorities. In these cases the relaxations on the size of the Board and the provisions for area committees have been welcomed.
A few responses have suggested that we should have alternative arrangements as close to the status-quo as those for English district councils. I will give full consideration to those responses.
However, it is my view that no Welsh unitary authority should compare itself to an English district council. You have far more extensive powers and responsibilities. You are the single democratic organisation for your population and you need the transparent leadership for that purpose.
The next steps are for the Assembly to consider the responses to consultation. By July of this year we will have processed all the necessary legislation. On that basis local authorities will be able to complete their local consultation procedures taking account of any new options available. Councils will be required to submit their proposals to me by next January so that that I can authorise their legal implementation during 2002.
I recognise that this whole process could just become a bureaucratic obstacle course.
For heaven's sake let's all keep in mind that what we are about is saving local democracy from the pit of popular indifference.
I want to see. You want to see - a lively local democracy that interests, serves and engages local people. Let's work to achieve that together.
See also CALL FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENT MODERNISATION DEBATE TO MOVE ON FROM POLITICAL STRUCTURES.
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