Local Democracy Endangered

You will recall that up until the end of last year I had this widget at the top of my sidebar, asking for signatures to a petition urging the ‘Welsh’ Government to intervene when chief executives get too powerful and take control of local authorities. That petition was ‘discussed’ yesterday by the Petitions Committee.

But before considering the reaction it received from the Committee, it might be worth you reading the petition, the letter responding to the petition from Leighton Andrews, Minister for Public Services, and my response to his response to my petition.

Here are those documents in PDF format and merged into a single document, so scroll down. Essentially, Andrews says, ‘Nothing to do with us, it’s up to councillors to rein in over-powerful chief executives’. To which I respond, ‘But what if they don’t do it, what then?’

Chief Executive petition combined

I had hoped to download a copy of the video of the meeting, to paste into this post, but apparently this is not allowed. So I can only offer you this link to the ‘discussion’ of my petition.

From his general demeanour it’s pretty obvious that the chairman, William Powell, a Liberal Democrat AM for the Mid and West Wales region, believes that the petition addresses a serious problem and should be given the attention it deserves . . . the other two members of the Committee clearly disagree, and can’t wait to get on to the next petition on roundabouts, though their reactions were revealing.

Joyce Watson, a Labour AM for Mid and West Wales did all the talking, and, boy, was her delivery revealing. She was hesitant, her voice cracked a couple of times, and she swivelled uncomfortably on her chair. As for what she actually said, it was nothing but paraphrasing what Leighton Andrews had written in his letter, about everything being put to rights in the Draft Local Government (Wales) Bill, which is open for comments until February 15th.

I shall of course submit my suggestions, but I’m not optimistic. My reading of Leighton Andrews’ letter is that in the new legislation curbing the power of dictatorial chief executives will still be entrusted to the very councillors who allowed the problem to arise in the first place.

Joyce Watson applied the stun gun to the discussion with, “There is no way we can take this any further forward, and I would recommend closing it”. At which point a little voice could be heard, off camera, squeaking, “I agree”.

This thin and distant voice belonged to the other member of the Committee, Elin Jones, the Plaid Cymru AM for Ceredigion. Ms Jones had kept her head down throughout Watson’s stuttering monologue, riveted to the correspondence before her as if it revealed that Saunders Lewis had been identified as the man on the Grassy Knoll.

Then again, maybe she was just keeping her head down.

To his credit, William Powell tried to breathe life into the dying debate, “It (the petition) does raise some very serious issues” he said, before going to remind everyone that these problems have arisen in “certain councils” in Wales.

Which councils, exactly? Well, let me be frank – and surprise no one – by saying that when I decided to submit this petition I was thinking primarily of Carmarthenshire, with Pembrokeshire in the reign of Bryn Parry Jones not far from my thoughts.

Making the dismissive attitude of Joyce Watson rather surprising, with her being the regional AM for both Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. But as I say, she had obviously been briefed by her Labour superiors.

Equally odd was Elin Jones’ reaction, seeing as her constituency shares a border with both counties. In her case the lack of concern might be explained by the fact that Plaid Cymru is now leading the coalition in Carmarthenshire, and so her party may not want to rock the boat ahead of the May Assembly elections.

Petitions Committee

A mistake. For I suspect that in the run-up to the May elections Labour will try to capitalise, in both Carmarthen East & Dinefwr (which Plaid holds) and Llanelli (where Labour has a majority of just 80), on Plaid’s refusal to rein in Mark James and Meryl Gravell. I can see it now on the hoardings, and plastered over the 198 Llanelli – Carmarthen omnibus: Plaid Cymru – the new broom that refused to sweep!’. It’s what I’d do.

Another factor worth considering from Plaid’s perspective is that very soon after the May elections Plaid Cymru hopes to again be Labour’s little helper in a coalition. Or could Plaid’s refusal to restore democracy to Carmarthenshire be attributable to something else?

I ask because in the age of devolution we have seen a shadowy clique remove Dafydd Wigley, the party’s most successful leader ever. Then in 2007 the party rejected a deal that would have seen a Plaid First Minister lead a ‘rainbow coalition’. And now, Plaid has been gifted the chance to make a name for itself by cleaning up the most corrupt and undemocratic council in Wales, but it does nothing.

It’s almost as if there is, deep within the party, a malign and self-destructive force at work. A successful force, for I predict that Plaid Cymru will lose votes and seats in May, and might even end up as the fourth party in Wales, behind Labour, Conservatives and Ukip.

In the meantime, I shall, as I’ve said, submit my comments to those working on the Draft Local Government (Wales) Bill, and I urge you all to do the same. It would appear that political parties are not much interested in preserving or restoring local democracy, and so the responsibility falls to concerned individuals like us to remind them that it matters.

 

21 thoughts on “Local Democracy Endangered

  1. dafis

    Points well made, as usual. The way things have developed in many local authorities, and indeed other public bodies, confirms a shift towards a “managed state” as opposed to a “democratic state”. Now it is arguable that if local affairs were left to our typically motley crew of councillors each pursuing a mix of personal and party objectives we could end up with an even bigger “potch”. That is why professional managers were introduced to displace the old guard of time servers. However the unintended consequence is the emergence of a “managerial class” that sees its role as governing rather than serving, when in reality much of what they are charged with doing is administering affairs within some very narrow constraints laid down by central Government. Like all ambitious professionals they have set out to test the boundaries, explore areas of ambiguity and over time this has led to the shambles and deviance which passes for local government today.

    To have any chance of restoring equilibrium and honesty the mandate must be restated along the lines of “democratically accountable management of services and budgets” with strictly enforceable, clearly defined lines of responsibility, goals and objectives. By all means let’s have council executives with imagination presenting ideas for service improvement, innovation, and some times the reduction/elimination of those activities best delivered by a different body. The migration of care services out of the social services mandate into a reshaped NHS is a possible example, though there is a great deal of vested interest tucked up in that one !

    Finally, It was refreshing to read of Mr Powell’s stance on your petition. Not totally surprised by the reactions of those representing the parties wedded to a more statist, totalitarian views on managing matters in general.

    1. The difference between the attitude of the chairman and the others is quite remarkable, click here to see it for yourself. (Start at 10:47.)

      1. dafis

        Shuffling around like 2 old dears in a senility ward ! I can’t honestly conjure up any other description. Unless they both anticipate getting knocked off their perches in May and may need to be on friendly terms with assorted local government bodies when it comes to that awful job search business !

        On the other hand it may be that they are utterly indifferent to the concerns of the public, unless those concerns give opportunities for on-message soundbites utterly in line with present party policy, whatever that may be !!

        How does one put a stop on these silly procedural roundabouts which are being used to deflect the various concerns about lack of serious stewardship in local and national government ?

  2. Wynne

    In my view the best example of a chief executive subverting the democratic operation of the Council is the antics tantrums and arrogance of Pembrokeshire’s former chief executive having to be dragged, kicking and screaming, from office following intervention by the Wales Audit Office.

    1. Ah! the unforgettable Bryn Parry Jones. So many stories, but one of the best was the meeting he addressed with his eyes closed, as if gazing on lower forms of life was distasteful to him.

  3. The Earthshaker

    Painful to watch but all too common, AM’s from all parties treat the petitions committee with disdain, few want to sit on it and even fewer care about the petitions raised by ordinary people, but when asked about it in public they all say it’s a great development for welsh democracy, they’re a bunch of hypocrites and liars, not a surprise I know.

    Clearly the Chairman William Powell knew your petition was sound and important enough to warrant Ministerial attention, but as usual you get a non answer from Leighton Andrews, who thinks he know better and is always right. Joyce Watson is a Labour backbench non entity, often called John because of her deep voice and it’s about time Elin Jones stood down, surely there must be a better Plaid Cymru candidate for Ceredigion?

    On the more general point everyone knows local government reorganisation only happens when governments run out of ideas and that’s why it’s going ahead, no ideological reason for it.

    And I never thought I’d say it but the Lib Dem group is the most effective by far, Kirsty Williams regularly winds Carwyn up a First Ministers Questions, maybe the Lib Dems know they’re dead men walking and are going out in style, it’s a shame for some because they’ll be replaced by UKIP sock puppets.

    Keep up the good work, maybe it feels thankless, but your getting news and issues out there and people are starting to take notice.

  4. Big Gee

    “Shuffling around like 2 old dears in a senility ward” that’s a good description, only neither are old or senile. What they both are is incredibly thick – both were far behind in the queue when neurons were being sharpened. Having a degree from an university does NOT prove that you’re not a natural “short plank”. What you have there are two ladies that have been educated beyond their natural abilities. Both have had a leg up to be selected for political chores – the one by Cynog Dafis (she being an ex school pupil of his that he could manipulate in any way he chose) – the other? Well she’s the product of Labour and we all know the track record of that party when it comes to selections.

    The one has a mental agility (or lack of) that I can personally vouch for. I was on the opposite side to her of the argument in a monthly meeting of Plaid’s Ceredigion party, (if my memory serves me right I was landed with the job of chairing that night, having been dumped with the job because I was vice chair, and the chairwoman had cried off, leaving her husband to run free whilst I was gagged) this was when Plaid were stupidly trying to prove their green credentials in Ceredigion. They were being prompted by the “hippie” microscopist whose wife is now the leader of Ceredigion County Council, and at the time was the chairwoman of Plaid’s Ceredigion party. No one in the room had the technical knowledge of a tadpole, apart from two of us, I’m an electronics engineer, the other was an electrical engineer, we were both opposed for technical reasons alone, but the others were being led like sheep by the “hippie”. I was arguing against supporting the plan to put hideous and inefficient windmills on Mynydd Gorddu by Tal-y-Bont.

    When asked by Cynog Dafis if I was against renewable energy. I replied that certain renewables were fine, and if the inefficient wind turbine varieties were planted out of site in the ocean I would be quite happy with that, then that same little squeaky voice – the same one you heard in the background on the recording mentioned above – quietly proclaimed “but what about the dolphins Gwilym?” I rest my case!

    1. Brychan

      I disagree with your characterisation of Elin Jones as ‘thick’. This is evidently not so when she demonstrated clear understanding of the epidemiological issues relating to bTB, and dealt excellently with the issues with clear intent as minister for agriculture. This was in a ‘fog’ of various interests and political dogma both within and outside of Plaid Cymru. Any involvement of Elin Jones in such matters is with good cognitive understanding and her decisions are deliberate.

      The correct method of dealing with Mark James is equally agricultural. Like any parasitic infestation there is a three-stage approach, each stage embarked upon with if the preceding stage fails.

      Stage 1. Provide a suitable exit route to the pest. This should have been an invitation to find pastures elsewhere. This is what Hull did, allowing him to descend upon Carmarthenshire and there are now many other local authorities in England that can be duped into offering him a pay rise. The letter of severance should include the phrase “good luck in new pastures’.

      Stage 2. Physically block out parasitical access to the holding. This can be done by appointing a ‘caretaker’ executive while an ‘investigation’ takes place. At the same time you offer an exit route for the infestation. Pembrokeshire did this. The letter of severance should include the phrase ‘wish you well in your retirement’. This method has an opportunity for functional continuity.

      Stage 3. Poison, shooting, starving. The parasite should be placed under a disciplinary process, no matter how trivial the issue to be cited. In this instance there is a clear line of site to aim at. That of the ‘unlawful’ finding by the audit. This method is expensive are requires majority support of the cabinet. It’s a last resort option.

      Powers already exist at national level to impose ‘special measures’ on a local authority and have been used on Ynys Môn. In this case, however, the infection was clearly visible and the Labour Party had an interest in dealing with the infestation. This scenario does not exist in Carmarthenshire and it’s clear that the behaviour of the Labour Party were clearly complicit in feeding the infestation. Elin Jones should have made this point in response to the petition, her failure to do so was an omission on her part and I think it’s not correct to say she did not understand. The question arises as to whether this omission amounts to a betrayal in political terms.

      It should be noted that Mark James did submit a notification to quit in the light of the findings of the Wales Audit Office but this was withdrawn after a back room deal with the midge in February 2015. I suggest he re-visit this career move, and am more concerned about the current (Plaid) leadership for not providing this option now.

  5. I am surprised even further about Joyce Watson. She was a Labour Councillor on Pembrokeshire County Council. Garth ward, Haverfordwest, I believe. So she would be well aware of Bryn Parry-Jones.
    Maybe she’s forgotten? As surely she should be supportive of tightening up the rules.

    1. In my experience politicians tend to have memories both short and selective. That said, I’m sure Joyce Watson was acting under orders.

    2. Y Cneifiwr

      No surprise at all about Joyce Watson. One of the remarkable things about politics in Pembrokeshire is how many of those elected as Labour councillors have crossed the floor to join the crypto-Tory Independents. I’m sure someone has been keeping a count, but more than half a dozen have abandoned their party over the last few years. The Labour group on the council was not that big to start with.

      As for the Petitions Committee, it’s a joke. How can anyone take a “committee” seriously where just 3 people turn up, one of those being a reserve, to dismiss a petition in less than 5 minutes, with two of the members clearly under orders from the whips’ office.

      1. That was the most worrying aspect, that both Joyce Watson and Elin Jones were doing what they had previously been told to do.

  6. dafis

    Off topic, some positive news in your Twit column about the proposed Swansea Bay barrage. Funding it over a c.90 -100 year life cycle makes more sense than the shorter term originally bandied about. Typically, it’s people like Matthews that shows the wit to reappraise and come up with such variations. Sheds full of politicians and bureaucrats can’t get their noses out of screens ( or digits out of arses, their own of course ! )

    I presume that those “Jammie Owen” twits are the product of someone having a dig at BBC Wales’ No 1 buffoon – or has he come to realise what a complete and utter twat he is ?

    1. I assume it’s someone having a go at him, unless Jamie Owen has developed self-deprecating humour. Unlikely in one so obviously in love with himself.

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