Anger at Assembly makes councils talk of divorce
THE word D-I-V-O-R-C-E more typically conjures the poignant Country and Western lament of Tammy Wynette than the mundane surroundings of a Welsh local government meeting.
But the leaders of the nation’s 22 councils yesterday used that very word as they warned their “relationship” with the Assembly Government was becoming increasingly fragile and characterised by “shameless” treatment from Cardiff Bay.
And in a charged debate Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) members said they were no longer sure the Assembly understood what councils did.
WLGA presiding officer and Carmarthenshire county councillor Meryl Gravell told yesterday’s full meeting of the body in Cardiff, “We have been trying to build a relationship with the Welsh Assembly Government.
“With the last administration we were getting there. But this new administration in Cardiff is certainly not listening and the relationship is particularly fragile.
“I hope it does not come to a divorce. I don’t know how many friends we have in the Assembly and that goes across party lines.”
WLGA chief executive Steve Thomas said devolution was not working as it should.
“What we see is not devolution but centralisation in a devolved system,” he warned.
Members said they were particularly concerned that the WAG did not appreciate how much cash was needed to run local services.
Services would be cut and council tax raised as a result of the 2.4% increase in next year’s budget, which did not even meet inflation, members said.
Rodney Berman, leader of Wales’s largest local authority, Cardiff County Council, claimed the WAG did not understand the role of local government. “What is going on with the relationship between the WAG and local authorities?” he asked. “We are being treated shamelessly by the WAG. We will have to really lobby them hard. They have to decide whether local services are a priority or not. We need to get them to understand what local government is and what it does. I’m not sure it does at the moment.”
A report from Mr Thomas recommended investigating how a protocol of communication, similar to that in Scotland, could be drawn up to improve matters.
Local Government Minister Dr Brian Gibbons has visited Scotland and he himself suggested the development of a Scottish-style concordant, members were told.
“It provides a clear understanding that Scottish Government must set the ‘direction of policy and over-arching outcomes but will stand back from micro-managing service delivery’ and allow local authorities to ‘meet the varying local needs’ of their communities,” the report said.
And it warned the situation in Wales was deteriorating.
It said a positive working relationship had been built up with the WAG since devolution but with a new government, new ministers and portfolios and increased Assembly powers “it has recently become apparent that it is timely to review the current relationship and renew under-lying principles”.
A Welsh Assembly Government spokesman said, “We have provided a fair and realistic settlement for local government in what is a tight three-year budget for the Assembly Government.
“We have listened carefully to the representations made by local authorities in Wales following the provisional settlement and Dr Gibbons also met with Councils who have wanted to make their representations in person.
“It is important that we continue to work closely with the WLGA and local authorities to ensure the best possible services for local people.”