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The ‘why’ questions in local government today

There is a failure by local leaders in Wales to challenge Westminster's austerity agenda, argues DAVID MORGAN

I TAKE the bus to work sometimes, remembering the days before I had a car when it was the only option. Behind me some older people are having a conversation. Older people are a key demographic on the bus these days. They have a free bus pass.  

“D’ya hear they’re takin’ the bus passes off the youngsters?” 

“Pam? [Why?]” the other fella says. 

“Council’s got no money, has it?” 

“Oh.”

The conversation quickly moves on quickly to other topics.  

As it happens I had heard. I got an email from a diligent student union volunteer who is putting in the hours over the summer break, the time the council has decided is the best moment to “consult” on its proposals to remove funding for college transport in this corner of rural north Wales.  

It occurs to me that the second of my two fellow passengers showed a flash of strategic insight in cutting straight to the fundamental question — why? 

Before we talk about the austerity environment which persists in local government, it is worth taking a look at Conwy Council’s own analysis of this question. 

“Why is the council consulting on possible changes? … The service is one which the council is not obliged to provide by law and which serves only a particular group of learners. Other councils in north Wales don’t provide free transport for post-16 learners.”

Let’s dissect that a moment. The attitude promoted by local government “leadership organisation” for many years has been one of retreat. Success is measured by the amount of services the authority no longer supplies.  

This has even found its way into sensitive areas such as social services where the performance measurement framework for the 2014 Social Services and Wellbeing Act (Wales) asks local authorities to report the success they have had in turning people away — “the percentage of adults who have received support from the information, advice and assistance service and have not contacted the service again during the year” and further demonstrating their success by increasing the number of people who “have a reduced package of care and support six months later” and “have no package of care and support six months later.” (Welsh government, 2015). 

The funding environment has meant that the production of “savings” is a goal in itself for local government managers.  

The savings side of the equation is unchallenged. Two things are absent. The first is any concerted effort by local government “leaders” to challenge the central government austerity agenda.  

Legislative changes with their origins in the 1970 and ’80s, when left-wing Clay Cross, Liverpool and the GLC were the target, mean that direct defiance of central government initiatives can be combated by central government takeover of local structures.  

The suspension of local democracy in Ynys Mon (Isle of Anglesey), albeit with a different narrative, shows that devolution has not removed this threat from Welsh local government.  

So direct defiance may not be for the faint-hearted, but where is the protest? It simply isn’t in the thinking of the local government managers who see their job as making the best of austerity rather than delivering the best for their communities.  

The prospect of raising revenue locally to pay for services through council tax has seemingly never occurred to Conwy either, where they are proud to boast council tax rates that are substantially lower then neighbouring authorities in Gwynedd, Denbighshire and Flintshire. 

On the other side of the equation, services, it seems, can only be protected by statute. Why are we proposing scrapping this service? Because we are “not obliged to provide it by law.” 

Given the current devastation occurring in Northampton, we should be very worried. And what about the other reasons? 

“Other councils in north Wales don’t provide it” — surely this is a recipe for a race to the bottom if ever there was one. 

Finally, I suppose we should consider the divide-and-rule element. It “serves only a particular group of learners.”

For those not familiar with Conwy it is perhaps worth pointing out that this particular group are those living miles away from their nearest college with the multiple inconveniences of mountains, rivers and a regular public transport system managed by those same bankrupt ideologues of capitalism.  

But of course the “local government leaders” are already aware of that. What they are not aware of is the other why question. Why we might consider retaining the service. Why we might, just might, consider as a community that this provision is worth paying for.

 

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