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Asleep at the Wheel: Carmarthenshire’s Councillors Told to Wake Up and Take Control

Report by the Welsh Local Government Association is Missile in Velvet Cloak

The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) published its ‘Carmarthenshire Peer Review’ of the county council this week. I can already hear the barely stifled yawns at this less-than-dramatic title. The 61-page review slates a raft of council policies, albeit couched in polite language like a gun with a silencer.

Policies can be changed. Personnel are changing. But the context in which policies and people operate, and which influences both, is changing only very slowly, if at all. Too many of us find politics boring, and we don’t do enough to hold politicians, their advisers, or indeed all who are in powerful positions, to account. We let them set the context in which we all have to live.

Carmarthenshire County Council is a dominant employer locally, alongside the National Health Service. What happens to an employee who draws attention to maladministration, corruption or abuse within a large institution? They are likely to find themselves ostracised, accused of bringing the organisation into disrepute, even sacked. As if that was not enough, where are the alternative jobs in Carmarthenshire? You have to feel very strongly about an injustice to risk ostracism and future poverty. The fears of speaking out are inversely proportional to the chances of finding comparable employment.

A small number of employers who control the local jobs market are one aspect of the endemic global inequality which a few new brooms and policy tweaks are not going to reverse — but every revolution has to start somewhere, and why not in Carmarthenshire?

Courteously Devastating

The WLGA’s report on Carmarthenshire is so critical, if courteously so, that change is inevitable. That change will have to be planned and executed by councillors, which prompts the question that if they have let governance become so arbitrary and slipshod, can they really take charge of the spluttering bus in which they have been passengers, rebuild the engine, change the exhaust and drive off on the marathon journey to 2017, when the next elections are due? There is even a chance that elections could be delayed to 2018, depending on the decisions which the next Welsh Government makes, from 2016, about local government reorganisation.

By firing a rocket over the walls of County Hall, the report does provide the impetus for change – although highlighting obstacles to achieving that change:

“…there [are] a number of behavioural, cultural and procedural barriers to achieving the Council’s ambition and vision for openness and transparency. It was clear through interviews that there is a self-awareness and recognition of where issues need to be addressed or approaches redefined. Whilst this report proposes a number of constitutional and procedural changes, it is important that the Council seeks to embed its vision and underpinning principles of openness and transparency as part of a wider culture change programme.” (paragraph 3.17)

Councillors are elected to lead, to direct, the processes of local government, and the officers they employ are there to advise and manage. These roles have been reversed in Carmarthenshire. How and why this happened will take a lot of untangling, but factors include too many councillors opting for a quiet life, councillors assuming that officers are always correct, and councillors mistaking advice for orders. As officers gained power, councillors lost it.  The report explains:

“Member relationships and tensions have, in part, been affected by the Council’s constitutional arrangements, some of which have been an impediment to legitimate challenge and scrutiny; opportunity for call-in is limited, members are unable to ask supplementary questions in Council and members’ opportunities to table pertinent Motions on Notice are restricted. Internal member-officer and executive-opposition relations have inevitably been affected and frustrated by the absence of constitutional ‘pressure-valves’ which are present in other authorities, which promote and facilitate challenge and democratic debate.” (paragraph 3.33)

The council’s senior employees run the show:

“The overwhelming feedback from internal and external stakeholders is that within Carmarthenshire the allocation of roles between senior managers and elected Executive Board members has become confused.

“The prominence and role of the Chief Executive was a feature of many of the contributions from internal and external interviewees as well as a number of public submissions. Inevitably, the Chief Executive’s personal profile is the focus of much public scrutiny given the high-profile High Court Case with a local blogger and the nature of the recent Wales Audit [Office] Public Interest Reports. Notwithstanding these matters, the Chief Executive has played a prominent and significant role in internal and external Council affairs during recent years and his personal leadership-style has influenced the authority’s approach to business. The perception has been that the Chief Executive and senior officers have dominated some of the decisions of the Executive Board to the extent that the balance of governance has become disjointed and the Council is widely perceived to be officer-led. In such a context it is therefore somewhat inevitable that political and media challenge has been focussed on officers rather than elected Executive Board Members.” (paragraphs 3.36 and 3.37)

Gagged by Complacence

By agreeing to damaging changes in the constitution, councillors have collaborated in their own silencing, a case of the quest for an easy life overcoming the determination to represent their communities and to challenge each other and the officers. The report points out that:

“The Council’s constitution is neither conducive to nor encourages challenge from within the council, and as such perpetuates the perception of the council’s defensiveness. Specific constitutional provisions are considered in more detail in subsequent sections of this report, but a range of mechanisms providing for legitimate debate and challenge in other authorities are either not present or are not widely promoted in Carmarthenshire. There was also the perception that the constitution was deliberately used on occasion to deflect and diffuse debate and disagreement, such as the rejection of or referral of Notices on Motion on executive functions or contentious policy matters.” (paragraph 3.46)

Webcasting of council meetings, a development of which the WLGA thoroughly approves, has shown the democratic deficits only too clearly:

“Many members expressed general disappointment and dissatisfaction about the Council meeting as a forum for debate and the focus of local democracy in Carmarthenshire. Many members articulated a vision of repositioning the Council meeting as the crucible for local democratic debate and the focus of public engagement with the local democratic process; a ‘constructive and creative’ forum for debate. It was however described as ‘stage-managed’, with debate stifled and dominated by the rehearsal of historic debates prompted by the discussion of Scrutiny Committee minutes during Council.”

“It is the view of the Review Team that rather than promoting debate, democratic empowerment and public engagement, the Council’s constitution currently constrains and curtails opportunities and powers for members to contribute to debate and influence the agenda.”(paragraphs 4.8 and 4.9, my emphasis)

Uninformative Minutes and Secret Sessions

The minutes published after meetings are usually records of decisions taken, omitting the salient points of debate. This is not good enough, the review notes:

 “Whilst the primary role of minutes is to record with clarity the decisions taken, given the Council’s aspiration for openness and transparency, the Review Team believes that the Council could look at other councils’ approaches to minute taking and when a decision has been a matter of contention there is scope to record the arguments presented for and against a decision.” (paragraph 4.32)

Bald minutes combined with secret sessions to consider confidential ‘exempt’ matters mean that the 64 councillors who are not among the 10 on the Executive Board are kept in the dark too often:

“The Review Team were surprised that non-executive members are expected to leave Executive Board Meetings along with members of the press and public during the discussion of exempt items. The Review Team subsequently conducted a survey of other council approaches, and of the 17 that responded only five others adopted a similar approach, although one noted the approach was under review and another noted that Exempt items are ‘rare’. Similarly the Review Team was informed that members did not receive copies of Exempt reports. Given non-executive members are not always fully aware of the nature of detail of the matters being considered nor the implications of all decisions at Executive Board Meetings, there is little scope to scrutinise or call-in such decisions.” (paragraph 5.11)

The business of local government, and the policies setting the priorities for that business, are boring for too many of us, a great policy yawn, but that yawn suffocates political engagement, and the extent of political disinterest means that clever people can hoodwink us a great deal of the time.

Disinterest means that if our councillors are asleep at the wheel, we may not notice until it’s too late. The WLGA’s report means that now, we have no excuse for ignorance about the weaknesses of governance in Carmarthenshire.

The report

Carmarthenshire Peer Review

Pat Dodd Racher

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