Anyone reading the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill which has just completed its final stage in the Welsh Parliament, the Senedd, might be forgiven a yawn. After the ground-breaking provision which extends the local government franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds and foreign citizens resident in Wales, it starts to read like any other piece of convoluted local government legislation: a lawyer’s paradise with no obvious connection to everyday life.
The reality is that this legislation will positively transform the experience of democratic engagement and empowerment in every part of Wales, at a time when nihilistic Trump-style populism has been challenging the nature of democracy across the globe.
Once again Wales has taken the lead and legislated to support diversity, openness and accountability in local government. The Bill includes provisions which will enable job sharing for executive members and other office holders, making permanent the ability to attend meetings remotely for councillors, the public and others, requiring the broadcasting of full council meetings, with others to be added over time, and puts the active participation of people and communities at the heart of local government.
Back in 1996 John Major’s Conservative Government imposed its local government reorganisation on Wales. It reduced the number of principal local authorities from 45 to 22 as a simplistic cost accountancy exercise. Fewer authorities meant less financial burden. There was no thought given to the nature of local democracy: the means of engagement for citizens with the organisations that shape the geographies they recognise – their neighbourhoods, towns, cities and regions.
In 1999 Tony Blair’s Labour Government acted more positively to create devolved government for the whole of Wales with the creation of the National Assembly for Wales, now called the Welsh Parliament or Senedd. Since that date the Welsh Government has sought to work creatively with the local government framework it inherited. Only now has the Welsh Government sought to re-define the nature of local and regional government.
A major gap in the governance of Wales has been in its regions. People identify with North Wales, Mid Wales, the West and the South East; and they know that their destinies are often shaped on this regional geography.
This Bill will fill this regional vacuum. It creates a legal framework in which local authorities and the Welsh Government can come together to function on a regional basis.
Specifically, local authorities will be required to create ‘corporate joint committees’ in each region of Wales and transfer to them responsibility for regional land use planning, transport planning and economic development.
These joint committees will be their own legal entities able to employ staff, enter into legal agreements and receive grants. Welsh Government has committed itself to devolve operations to these regions so that creative partnerships can develop between central and local government on this regional geography, engaging with the private sector to create the planned investment that each region needs to build back better in a post-COVID and post-Brexit world.
The corporate joint committees will be democratically controlled and led by the leadership of the constituent councils. They will be held to account by locally agreed scrutiny processes aimed at reaping the potential benefits of regional scale and coherence without losing the principles of local democracy, representation and accountability. As they grow and develop councils can shape their committees and add further functions if they wish.
The Welsh Government believes that local government should shape its own future and be responsible for its own performance and outcomes so the Bill also provides a new performance and governance framework based on self and peer assessment to enable this and underline the trust we are placing in local government to manage its own affairs as it should be in a small country which believes in subsidiarity.
The challenge of our time is that we need to constantly renew the experience of democracy in all our communities and all our nations. When we fail, people are swayed by the dangerous, anti-democratic voices that are currently all too prevalent in all parts of the globe.
The Welsh Government’s Local Government and Elections Bill is not a technical and legalistic charter, it is designed to meet this major challenge.
Julie James is minister for housing and local government in the devolved Government for Wales