Last week Citizen Cameron failed to reduce the number of MP’s from 650 to 600, with the proposed reform of the parliamentary boundaries Wales would have seen a reduction of 25% of its MP’s (10 out of 40). Incidentally the figure of 40 MP’s was merely historically plucked out of the air. A number of Labour’s in Wales’s elected representatives would have been culled, hence the loud and persistent bleating from some of those usual suspects. Aside from Citizen Cameron’s patience being tried what has been lost was a much needed opportunity to reform the way our National Assembly members are elected.
Lord Elis-Thomas, interviewed on BBC Wales' The Wales Report (last Sunday) advocated reducing the number of Wales' local authorities as part of a wider package of reform, which included reducing the number of Welsh MPs and increasing the number of assembly members. He was absolutely right to link reform of governance at all levels with the introduction of Single Transferable Vote system of voting. If we are going to reform governance (at all levels in Wales) then it must suit Welsh needs and aspirations rather than blindly following a British model which may not necessarily suit our needs.
If we approach the subject of Wales’s governance rationally then our country is at some levels actually somewhat overburdened with elected representatives. Wales with a population of 3.06 million has 60 AMs, 40 MP’s (at the moment), 4 MEPS; we have 1264 councilors (one for every 1830 electors). Wales also has around 8000 community councillors; out of some 875 'communities' in Wales, 735 of them have a council. Let’s not forget our unelected tier of government with its Assembly Government Sponsored Bodies, Assembly Sponsored Public Bodies (formerly known as quangos) and the seven Health Boards.
So how does Wales compare with other countries when it comes to governance? Scotland with a population of 5.2 million people has 59 MPs, 129 MSP’s and 6 MEP’s. Scotland has 1,222 councilors (one for every 3180 electors) and 32 unitary authorities. There are also 1,200 community council’s in Scotland, incidentally a country where the law states that candidates cannot stand on a party-political ticket. Scotland also has 14 Health Boards, 7 regional transport partnerships, while the Police and Emergency services are currently undergoing reorganisation.
Slovenia with a population of 2.05 million with 90 elected representatives in its Assembly (88 directly elected and 2 representatives for the Hungarian and Italian minorities) and 7 MEP’s. Slovenia has 211 municipalities (eleven are urban municipalities), all the municipalities have local autonomy. Each municipality has an elected Mayor (elected every 4 years), and a Municipal Council. In the most of the municipalities, the municipal council is elected via PR with some smaller municipalities using a plurality voting system. Slovenia’s urban municipalities have elected Town or City Councils. The country also has 62 administrative districts which are merely territorial sub-units of government administration, each of which has a Head of the Unit who is appointed by the Minister of Public Administration.
A strong case can and should be made for our 22 local authorities to be reorganised into between five and seven counties (with Cardiff as a municipal region in its own right). Such a reorganisation would match the already completed reorganisation of our local health boards which have been reduced in number to seven. The Conservatives ideologically driven reorganisation of local government in the 1990’s aside from being flawed, replaced several large authorities with 22 smaller authorities. This had more to do with breaking up perceived centres of monolithic Labour power and trying to create local authorities that he conservatives might win control of, than making local government more efficient.
Locally the former county of Gwent was abolished being replaced by five councils which covered; Caerphilly, Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, Newport and Monmouth. Almost overnight, one chief executive was replaced by five seperate chief executives, five heads of education, five heads of social services and deputies, etc, etc. Any relative economies of scale vanished being replaced by five seperate purchasing organisations, etc. Many of the local authorities, well before the age of austerity in which we no languish were struggling to make ends meet and most of them had to operate with poor financial settlements.
Our institutions at all levels need to be fully democratic being elected with Single Transferable Vote and multiple member constituencies so that they cease to dominated by single political parties and are fit for the twenty first century, rather than the nineteenth. Along the way we can cull the number of highly paid council cabinet members, reduce the number of councilors, and reintroduce some joined up thinking along with sensible economies of scale, and cut out that local government middle management tier without cutting front line services.