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Saturday, February 23, 2008

One of those Conferences

It is Saturday morning in Llandudno so it must be the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference and somehow I just know it is going to be one of those conferences when what is being discussed in the media bears no relation to talking points amongst the representatives.

The Western Mail sets the mood with a two page profile of Welsh Party leader, Mike German in which their main focus is on when is he going to stand down and who will succeed him. Discussions I have had with other journalists confirm this trend and yet the entire party is united in its determination to put any such thoughts behind them and to concentrate instead on the huge opportunities that await us in May's local council elections.

We are defending the leadership of four councils representing nearly one million people and we are targeting seats in areas where we have made little impact before but fully expect to make gains this time. We are confident that we have a record to be proud of and that if we can get our message across that we will hold onto what we have and build upon it.

It is also evident that Labour and Plaid Cymru have made a rod for their own backs in the way that they have treated local government since forming the One Wales government. The Western Mail reports on unprecedented language being used by local Council leaders about their dissatisfaction with the way they the Welsh Government now views local democracy:

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.”

It is my experience that Council leaders are right to be worried. In the early days of the Assembly there was clear mutual respect and co-operation between the Welsh Government and local councils. There was a real understanding of subsidiarity within Welsh governance and Assembly initiatives sought to take that into account.

Now, whether it is through a derisory below-inflation financial settlement, or a more directive approach to government, Councils are being treated as the Government's whipping boy and a convenient scapegoat when things go wrong. Ministers may be listening but they do not understand what they are being told about the way local government works and the needs of local democracy. Whether that is deliberate or not is difficult to ascertain but I suspect that in some cases it is. It is almost as if we have gone back to the bad-old pre-devolution days, possibly even pre-1997 in some cases.

And that is where the Welsh Liberal Democrats come in. We understand local democracy and we are commited to it. It is in our philosophy and our values. We are not perfect either but when it comes to the crunch we are more likely to place our trust in local people than in technocrats and government officials and in May's elections that will count for a lot.
The Assembly does have a centrakising streak. It's interesting that local Councils feel the brunt of it. So too does higher education and health, each of which have to bear levels of ministerial interference which wouls not happen just across the border.

If the Assembly wants to establish itself as a respected Welsh institutionit should remember that sometimes less is more.

Trouble is, can Nat-Socs ever let go?
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