The Welsh Government has introduced a Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill which includes a general power of competence, a power for local authorities to make an application to merge voluntarily, and powers to facilitate regional working through corporate joint committees.
Julie James AM, Minister for Housing and Local Government, said that in relation to the governance framework for local government, the Bill would – in addition to bringing in a general power of competence – introduce a new system for improving performance and governance based on self-assessment and peer review, including the consolidation of the Welsh Ministers' support and intervention powers.
The minister said she was working with the Welsh Local Government Association to develop a new, sector-led, co-ordinated approach to local government improvement and support.
The Bill requires local authorities to take responsibility for their own improvement, she added. There are reserve powers for the Auditor General for Wales and the Welsh Ministers "where performance is less than satisfactory".
Ms James said the Bill would also seek to empower local authorities, providing options where they do not currently exist.
“Local authorities work hard to deliver services using different mechanisms to collaborate over different areas,” she said. “A key recommendation of the working group on local government was the need for more consistent mechanisms and structures to support regional working and collaboration. The Bill will therefore provide for this by including powers to facilitate more consistent and coherent regional working mechanisms called corporate joint committees.”
The minister said she saw these committees as “an important tool for local government to use to support collaboration, transformation and the longer term sustainability of public services. They will be bodies corporate, formed from the membership of principal councils, established in statute and able to directly employ staff, hold assets and manage funding.”
The Bill would see local authorities able to request the creation of a corporate joint committee for any service they wish. Welsh Ministers, however, will only be able to create a corporate joint committee in a limited number of functional areas that are set out in the Bill. These are: improving education, strategic planning for the development and use of land and the function of preparing a strategic development plan, transport, and economic development.
“The aim is to reduce complexity for councils using different kinds of regional working arrangements, and to ensure that the decisions are made as close to the local people as is possible for effective and efficient democracy,” Ms James said.
The Bill meanwhile requires a principal council to appoint a chief executive and makes provision about their role. “This replaces the term 'head of paid service' and updates the role to reflect modern management practices,” the minister said.
“To further promote diversity in democracy, it also enables the appointment of members as assistants to the executive and job sharing by executive members and leaders. It also updates provision about the entitlement of members to family absence and places a duty on leaders of political groups to take reasonable steps to promote and maintain high standards of conduct by the members of the group.”
The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill also:
- extends the franchise for local government elections to 16 and 17-year-olds and foreign citizens legally resident in Wales;
- allows principal councils to choose their voting systems for elections;
- sets the elections cycle for local government at five years, in line with that of Senedd Cymru;
- provides a power for the establishment of a combined all-Wales database of electoral registration information;
- enables electoral registration officers to register people automatically using a wider range of reliable data;
- amends the legislation relating to the qualification for and disqualification from membership of a local authority;
- makes provision for election pilot schemes;
- provides clarity on returning officers' expenditure and the accessibility of election documents.
The Minister also highlighted measures in the Bill aimed at increasing public participation in local democracy and improving transparency.
She said principal councils would be required to prepare, consult on, publish and keep under review a public participation strategy. “They will also be required to publish a guide to their constitution that explains in ordinary language the content of their constitution. Provision is made for the broadcasting of council meetings that are open to the public.”
To encourage diversity "and hopefully enable more employed elected members and those with caring responsibilities to be able to stand for election", the Bill amends the legislation covering remote attendance at principal council meetings.
Community councils will meanwhile be required to prepare an annual report about the council's priorities, activities and achievements during the year. This is to meet a recommendation of the independent review on the future of community and town councils in Wales.