Speech by the Secretary of State for Wales to the Society of Local Council Clerks
This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
This is a speech delivered by the Secretary of State for Wales, David Jones MP to the Society of Local Council Clerks. This is the text of the speech as drafted, which may differ slightly from the delivered version.
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Wales in the Age of Localism
Thank you for my introduction, and for inviting me here today to your Wales regional conference.
And it is good to be here at the excellent Venue Cymru, in Llandudno, just a few miles up the road from my own constituency.
I want today to talk about a shift of power; the decentralisation of democracy from Westminster down; about localism.
I want to explain what the UK Government is seeking to do to advance localism, and what we have achieved so far; look at the differences in approach between England and the devolved picture in Wales; and look at what more could be done to push down power to the local level in Wales. This last point is, I’m sure, of particular interest to all of you here today.
Future of the Union
But first, I would like to say something about the future of the United Kingdom as a whole; the continuing Union.
Today marks exactly a year before the people of Scotland will be asked to make an historic choice between a continuing Union – remaining within the UK – or going it alone.
The referendum next year has far-reaching implications for all parts of the United Kingdom, including Wales, and the next twelve months will certainly be momentous in terms of the future of our country.
I am a committed unionist. I believe that all four nations of the UK are better and stronger together. I want to see the people of Scotland decide in favour of continuing the Union, and am campaigning hard to achieve that. I hope that many from Wales’s political and civic life will do the same.
The Age of Localism
But a strong and united Kingdom does not mean centralising power at Westminster. Quite the contrary. I believe that a strong, politically healthy UK positively demands devolving decision making in this country down to the right level.
When we formed the coalition Government in 2010, we committed ourselves to delivering localism: a fundamental shift of power from Westminster to the people and communities of this country; promoting decentralisation and ending the Labour era of top-down government, by giving new powers to local councils, communities, neighbourhoods and individuals.
As a Government, we believe that it is right - no, essential - that those who represent and serve local communities, such as you, should be empowered to make decisions about the issues that matter to you, the issues that affect you, and the issues that you know the most about.
Devolution in Wales
Here in Wales, of course, we have had devolution now for some fourteen years, and in that time we have seen devolved government take root and develop.
The Assembly and the Welsh Government take important decisions that directly affect the lives of people in Wales and, as a consequence, the devolved institutions have become an important part of Welsh civic life.
The Assembly has an important role to play in reflecting the views of the Welsh electorate and holding the Welsh Government to account. But to do its job well, it seems to me that it needs to connect much better with the real lives and real priorities of people in communities across Wales.
The challenge to the Assembly is to find a way of engaging more purposefully with the people of Wales who elect it, and sharpen its scrutiny of Welsh Ministers accordingly by being more effective in challenging their actions and decisions.
I made a speech about this earlier this year. It’s fair to say it received a mixed reception in some quarters of Cardiff Bay.
But today I want to talk to you about something else of which I would like to see more in Wales: decentralisation
As a Conservative, I believe passionately in devolution. Real devolution, to the most appropriate level.
This means powers flowing down as much as possible to local councils, where they can be best used for the benefit of local people and local communities.
The trouble is that, in Wales, this simply isn’t happening. Powers are devolved by Westminster to Cardiff, but, too often, that’s where they stop. The flow of power is all too often impeded by the Welsh Government, tying the hands of local councils in Wales; providing them with less power than they are increasingly enjoying in England. Indeed, I think devolution in Wales has, in some instances, actually led to more centralisation of decision making in Cardiff, rather than less.
To many communities in Wales – from Carmarthen to Caernarfon, from Merthyr to Mostyn, Cardiff is as remote as London from everyday lives. Indeed, given the train services, to us here in North Wales, Cardiff often seems further away!
So I believe that power should not be hoarded in Cardiff; it should be rolled out to all the communities of Wales.
We in the UK Government want to see power devolved right the way down to the most local level. We believe in and practise lean government – less red-tape and regulation binding the hands of business; smaller government, with fewer quangos; savings for the taxpayer; and a strong commitment to localism - power devolved down to councils and even further to neighbourhoods, community groups and to people.
We are committed to decisions being made at the most appropriate level, and very often this is the most local level.
But we know that localism is not just letting go of power, like sand slipping through fingers. It is about actively pushing power down so that it may be used, and used most effectively.
With localism you really have to mean it, want it, and be committed to it. And we, the UK Government, certainly are.
Localism in Wales
I am sure that, as council clerks, you will have heard a lot about localism over the last three years; and know that this is what we mean by it: local decisions taken by local people who know the issues that affect their communities. But what does our push for localism mean here in Wales, where local government is devolved?
There are over 730 community and town councils in Wales representing populations that range from fewer than 200 people to more than 45,000, and there are many great examples of councils delivering services and projects that really matter to the people they serve.
I believe that our vision of a Big Society and is underpinned by the principles of localism and community empowerment.
And there are good examples of these principles in action in Wales - from ‘Eco Schools’ in Pontypool to cycle routes in Welshpool, to charity engagement in Llay.
I visited Holyhead last month, and saw for myself a town council that demonstrates real localist leadership and innovation in its community work.
Holyhead council are running facilities from a left luggage facility in Holyhead port; organising bicycle hire in the town centre, and restoring a redundant cinema as a recreational facility. Holyhead town council is a prime example of a council actively pursuing a localist agenda: using all the powers available to it to deliver projects that have real benefits to the local community and individuals.
And Holyhead is but a single example.
As council clerks, you understand that projects like these matter to people across Wales; and you are delivering them.
And we the Westminster Government are doing our bit to push power down to local government in Wales:
*Council Tax Benefit is now in the hands of local authorities in Wales, so that they can make decisions about how to offer support to those who need it most in their local communities;
*We have improved the Community Infrastructure Levy so that local authorities have more flexibility to raise funds from new developments and reinvest that money in new infrastructure to benefit communites; and
*We have ended the Housing Revenue Account subsidy in England, and we are in the process of doing so in Wales, putting more levers in the hands of those local authorities who still retain housing stock.
But I am here today to tell you as passionately as i can that I want to see much more localism in Wales. Because I believe passionately in the importance of empowering local communities and people to take more of the decisions on the issues that matter to, and affect them, most.
I want to see power increasingly decentralised from Cardiff Bay to decision-makers in local authorities and community councils across the country.
That is what we are doing in England and that is what should be happening in Wales.
Differences in Approach Between England and Wales
In the past, I have referred to town and community councils as the building blocks of national democracy. My colleague, Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, is a larger than life character; and sometimes he uses larger than life language. He has referred to parishes in England as ‘the midwives of localism’. The same can be said of community councils in Wales.
You and the councils you represent care deeply for your local communities: you know your local areas and you deliver for local people.
In England, we are recognising that same local commitment, by empowering communities.
We have made audit requirements less burdensome, we have reduced the costs of reporting on duties imposed by Whitehall, and we have even changed the way that parishes can make payments, so that modern methods such as electronic banking can be used.
The General Power of Competence, which we provided for in the Localism Act 2011, gives eligible parishes wide-ranging powers to act for their communities.
Gone are the days when parish councils had to look for legal advice to even do the simplest of things.
Neighbourhood planning will allow parishes to help decide what gets built and where it goes, putting them in poll position in the planning process - which is where they should be.
And we have followed these initiatives with new rights for communities to bid to buy community buildings and facilities, and the Right to Challenge that allows community organisations to bid to run local authority services.
These new freedoms have helped communities to develop in new and innovative ways.
From converting a school to a community centre in Sprowston in Norwich to taking over a youth service previously run by the County Council in Crewkerne in Somerset. Important decisions taken by town and parish councils.
And we have empowered County Councils as well.
We have introduced Community Budgets that allow local public service providers to work together for those in the greatest need in their communities.
Our Public Transformation Network will spread the opportunities created by Community Budgets right around the country – breaking down the barriers of bureaucracy.
We have linked the amount of money that local authorities in England have to spend on local people and local services to the growth of their business rates revenues, incentivising councils to promote economic growth.
And we have relaxed planning rules in England so that there is a particular focus on sustainable economic benefits.
We have done a great deal to empower local government in England. To give them more freedom to take decisions on local matters. There may not always be more money, but there is increasing freedom to decide what to do with it.
Now in talking about how localism has taken root in England I don’t want to hold up England as some sort of Utopia: the “promised land” – we all know Wales holds that title. But the simple fact is that there is more, increasingly more, localism in England than there is here in Wales.
I believe that much, much more must be done to empower Welsh communities, and that you - town and community councils in Wales - should have the same powers to deliver community priorities that we have given parish councils in England.
The Welsh Government often says it wants Welsh solutions for Welsh problems. Well, localism is as much an opportunity for Wales as it is for England. Where our approach to localism has been adopted in Wales, it has worked.
That is why I am challenging the Welsh Government and the Assembly to examine all our initiatives carefully to see how well they would work in Wales.
The Welsh Government’s Approach
I welcome the progress made to increase the transparency of local government in Wales, and particularly the one and a quarter million pounds of funding the Welsh Government has provided to local authorities to deliver that.
Openness and transparency are key foundations of our democracy at all levels. We should continuously review how we ensure open and transparent governance in the context of technological advances, and guard against anything that threatens freedom of speech and proper, independent journalism.
That is why the Planning Inspectorate has made clear the rights of members of the press and the public we all serve to report, film or tweet planning appeal hearings.
And that is why I welcome the steps forward the Welsh Government has taken to advance transparency in Wales.
All that is good.
But all too often the Welsh Government seems more intent on increasing the regulatory burdens on councils and businesses rather than reducing them. The very opposite of empowerment. And collaboration - in Welsh Government terms - means telling local authorities what to do, rather than communities and councils working together.
I want to see more collaborative work:
*like the collaboration I saw in Holyhead where the town council is working with big companies like Arriva to deliver for the community;
*and like the partnership of local authorities and community organisations that are driving Swansea’s bid to become UK City of Culture in 2017, something that all of Wales should get behind.
As well as collaboration, we need less bureaucracy and less regulation.
The Welsh Government is imposing more onerous building regulations in Wales, increasing costs to house-builders of constructing the starter homes so many families desperately need, and putting up the price of those homes, so that more people will struggle to get onto the property ladder.
And it has intervened to a significant extent in the running of many Welsh councils – the very opposite, ironically, of localism.
We have frozen council tax in England for the length of this Parliament and we have given the Welsh Government the funds to do the same in Wales. Please let them do it.
We have given the Assembly the power to legislate on some of the key measures we introduced – referenda on council tax increases and changes to planning applications and enforcement. Let’s see that legislation.
In short, we have given the Assembly and the Welsh Government what the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, would term the “tools to do the job”. Please, Mr Jones, use those tools.
I urge the Welsh Government to use the powers we have given them. Legislate, and legislate quickly and committedly, to give local people a voice in issues that matter to them, like the amount of council tax they pay.
To me, devolution should not be an end in itself. It is not a case of accruing powers to a few individuals in Cardiff Bay. It is a stream of power that should become a mighty river, flowing down to every community, large and small, the length and breadth of Wales. And ultimately it should flow to every household, every individual in Wales, making them more in control of their own surroundings and lives.
Devolution is about decisions being made at the right level, by people that understand local issues, for the benefit of local communities.
I, and my colleagues around the Cabinet table in Westminster, are committed to that – to giving people and communities the power to make the decisions that suit their circumstances best.
You, in Wales’s community councils, and your counterparts in County Councils, are best placed to make decisions for your communities, your towns and villages, your people.
You already do fantastic, valuable work and we want to enable you to do more.