I like to think that I’m not often lost for words in the Chamber. But during my oral questions session the other week, Plaid’s spokesperson, Sian Gwenllian, asked me a question that momentarily left me like a goldfish gasping for breath.
Sian asked me what would be my style as a minister. I guess that she wanted to know whether I’d be more Leighton or Mark. Whether I would seek to impose a policy or seek a consensus. I have no idea whether my response pleased her or not. But it was a good question and it has led me to think again how I would answer the question.
Over the years successive ministers have tried several different approaches and styles. Local government leaders have been flattered, cajoled, persuaded and been drawn into temptation by a whole feast of ministerial offerings. This is certainly one area of policy where there have been an embarrassment of riches with a whole government full of green papers, white papers, commissions and strategies and speeches and statements.
What all of this earnest activity has in common is that it has all failed to deliver any meaningful reform of either the structures or ways of working in local government. It has failed to deliver change or reform and it has failed to create a consensus on the shape of what any reform may actually look like. Maps have come and gone. Footprints debated and heads nodded. Within a month of my own appointment I was told at the WLGA’s seminar in Cardiff in no uncertain terms to put away the Bill and the policy that I had inherited only a couple of weeks previously.
And no report from the WLGA seminar would be complete without mention of Newport’s Debbie Wilcox who has taken the organisation by the scruff of the neck. Her powerful speech set the tone for the day and impressed all of us with her emphasis on the value and importance of localism within the devolved context.
And it was this speech which first helped me to understand that times are changing.
As well as telling me that the inherited policy of mandated regional working wasn’t a runner I was also told that the current shape and structure of local government is not sustainable. And it is this latter point that has dominated my conversations with local government leaders since November.
In my initial conversations I see a generation of leaders committed to their communities and to local government as a powerful and dynamic shaper of those communities. These are people that understand only too well that the failure to agree on an approach to local government policy reflects poorly on everyone – local government and Welsh Government. Repeating the word ‘no’ during difficult times engenders neither confidence nor conviction.
Since taking office I have tried to spend time talking with people. From the wonderful Guildhall in Swansea to the marvellous civic centre in Newport and a former cell in Caernarfon I have discussed and enjoyed the creative force of leaders with drive and energy and a determination to lead change. And I am left with the absolute belief that local government has the vision and the ambition to transform our communities. And to deliver on this vision they need the powers and the freedoms to chart their own courses.
So what is the role for Welsh Government? Great efforts have been made recently to re-build and re-set the relationship and there is certainly a sense that things have improved significantly. We need to build on these firm foundations. For me it is time that Welsh Government joined the debate over the future of local government with a degree of humility rather than an over-large helping of hubris. Too often in the past the tone from Welsh Government has been hectoring, arrogant and policy expressed in intemperate language with criticism that has been unwarranted and unjustified.
Perhaps it’s time for the Government to say sorry and to start again.
So this brings me to answer Sian’s question.
In resetting the relationship between the Welsh Government and local government we need to root our approach firmly in the values of local democracy. A belief in not only civic pride but in local government and local decision-making rather than the local administration of national priorities. A belief that local government leaders and strong councils are better able to deliver excellent public services and to protect the interests of public service workers than a series of instructions from the Bay.
So I have written to all local government leaders asking them for their ideas for powers that should be provided to local government. What are the freedoms and flexibilities that they need to deliver on their mandates and ambitions? I will publish the answers and will publish a route map to deliver those new powers.
But I cannot travel on this journey alone.
The new powers alone will not provide all the answers to the question of sustainability that were so powerfully put back in November. The leader of a rural authority told me last week of the reductions they were making – hundreds of jobs lost over the last few years. And it is this erosion of the public workforce with its inevitable impact on services provided and the terms of service for those who keep their jobs that worries me most. No-one is a winner today. And no-one that I have met wants more of the same.
So the Welsh Government needs to change its approach and to provide for a new relationship. And that also means a new tone. A tone rooted in the respect for local mandates and the pressures faced by local councillors and public service workers. A tone and an approach which seeks to build together a joint venture to provide local authorities with the new powers they need. And then we need to build together the structures that will enable authorities to deliver on those new powers.
It may well be the case that after nearly two decades of devolved government that our democracy is maturing and that the relationship between a more powerful Welsh parliament and more powerful local authorities will be one where we can learn to govern together as a single Welsh public service and leave the arguments and negative debates in the past.
I certainly hope so.