Mr Llywydd, I would like to make a statement about the future of the Isle of Anglesey County Council, and about the actions I am taking following the Auditor General’s re-inspection of it, which he reported today.
Last month I made a written statement to the Assembly which described the situation within the Council following Brian Gibbons’ intervention in 2009. That intervention tried to help the Council help itself, with the support of a high-calibre Recovery Board and a Managing Director with a strong track record in corporate recovery.
That yielded some progress. But the basic problem remains. There are too many Anglesey councillors who are more concerned with pursuing their own advantage than with delivering for the island. The pervasive political culture puts making and breaking political deals ahead of the needs of Anglesey’s citizens.
That makes the Council critically unstable. As soon as any administration takes office, its rivals start plotting to undermine or supplant it. There is and can be no trust, no consistency and no stability. And that means the people of Anglesey can have no confidence in their elected representatives, or hold them effectively to account.
As a result, the membership of political groups changes on a whim, as members back or oppose the latest plot. In the last 18 months, around a third of all councillors have changed their allegiance between various groups at least once, with scarcely any attempt to justify their actions to those they represent. Imagine the uproar if 20 AMs or 215 MPs did so.
To compound the problem, a high proportion of councillors are not opposed at election time: they are repeatedly returned by default, because no-one stands against them. That might be testament to their local influence, but it is not democratic. It means the members concerned feel immune from challenge and can behave as they please. They do not need to be accountable to those who elected them, because no-one elected them. It also means that Anglesey has one of the worst gender imbalances anywhere – only 2 out of 40 councillors are women.
I accept that in politics different allegiances are often formed, usually in order to bring stability to an elected body.
But this persistent instability, shifting loyalties in pursuit of personal advantage and neglect of the public good cannot continue. It is not democracy – it is the politics of the playground.
It would be wrong to tar all councillors with the same brush. I know that some are fully committed to change and recovery, and have tried to take a stand. But they are too few, and their approach does not seem to have any chance of prevailing. Equally, there may be many who would prefer things to change but feel unable to act. As my Recovery Board put it, if there is a silent majority which supports recovery, it is still largely silent. That is not good enough.
The people of Anglesey will know better than me that the island faces some severe challenges. It is one of the most isolated parts of Wales, with high levels of deprivation in both urban and rural areas. It has suffered from very significant job losses in recent years as major employers have collapsed or left the island. The population is ageing and declining, causing serious over-capacity in some of the Council’s services. The current financial climate will present a huge challenge in protecting the frontline services residents need. I will require responsible and decisive action from the council.
The potential development of Wylfa B may offer an opportunity to address some of these problems, but it is an opportunity that needs to be pursued sensibly and strategically. This has been very difficult given the large number of changes within the executive. The constant changes in portfolio holders responsible for driving this forward in the last few years and presents a damaging impression of the council’s credibility in leading this major inward investment.
Enough is enough. I have been more than patient in giving the Council a chance to sort things out itself. I have been more than generous in providing them with the support to do so. But it is clear that these councillors are unwilling to accept the responsibilities that their public office requires and instead wish to continue acting in a way which is destructive and dangerous to the future of Anglesey and its citizens.
I am not prepared to continue in this way. I will therefore be bringing our current intervention to an end that sought in vain to support the Council to resolve its own problems. Despite that, I would like to thank my Recovery Board for the very considerable efforts they have made. They have been instrumental in the progress the Council has made over the past 18 months and it is with the greatest regret that I have to conclude that their current role is largely over. It is unfortunate that even the valuable advice, commitment and dedication of seven very high-calibre individuals has not moved the Council forward in key areas, which underlines the need for a stronger intervention. I am very pleased that the Board has agreed to lend its very considerable knowledge and expertise to help us move to that new intervention.
I am therefore giving a further and much more stringent direction to the Council, effective immediately. It will bring stability to the council’s politics, ensure consistency in strategic decision-making and protect front-line services. The main terms of that direction will be as follows.
Firstly, I accept the Auditor General’s recommendation that I should appoint Commissioners to run the Council. They will assume all of the functions of the Council’s executive. The Commissioners will be scrutinised by the Council and its committees in the same way as the executive is now.
I am pleased to announce that I have appointed 2 commissioners to exercise the Council’s executive functions on my behalf. They are:
◦ Mr Byron Davies - former Chief Executive of Cardiff County Council;
◦ Mr Alex Aldridge – former Leader of Flintshire County Council and the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA)
I intend to appoint Mr Mick Giannasi - current Chief Constable of Gwent Police after his retirement from the Police Service at the end of the month. I also plan to appoint a further two commissioners shortly, and will announce their names as soon as possible.
Secondly, last month I commended the Council’s staff for continuing to provide services in the most difficult of circumstances. That has to continue, and the existing delegations to the Council’s officers will remain in place.
Thirdly, I will retain the power to appoint the Council’s chief executive. I will also withdraw from the Council the power to appoint other statutory officers concerned with corporate governance – the monitoring officer and the chief finance officer. It is vital that these posts are occupied by high-calibre individuals who are immune from attack by members. It is equally vital that the council pays heed to their advice. So I am also directing that any decision of the Council or its committees which goes against the advice of statutory officers must be referred to the Commissioners for confirmation or overruling.
The Auditor General also recommended that I should consider instigate a review of electoral boundaries on the island As an alternative, he suggested that I should direct the Council to hold a referendum on an elected Mayor, and that I should consider directing the Council to develop and implement a strategy that promotes democratic renewal.
I will be immediately instructing the Local Government Boundary Commission to undertake a review of the electoral boundaries of the Authority and will be considering what action can be taken to support democratic renewal.
I also agree fully with the Auditor General and with my Recovery Board that a wider programme of democratic renewal is absolutely essential on the island. More people need to stand for election, and Council politics needs a much greater focus on delivering for citizens. I will be writing to the Electoral Commission to ask them to be involved in this work.
In light of the reduced role of councillors within the Authority which will be brought about by my directions, I will be asking the Independent Remuneration Panel to conduct a review of the allowances of councillors in the Authority with a view to them reflecting their diminished roles. I will be writing to them immediately to ask them to undertake this work.
The actions I am outlining today are not decisions that any Minister can take lightly. Indeed, they are decisions that I can only take with a profound sense of sadness. I would much prefer to trust local authorities and their members to discharge their considerable public responsibilities effectively, accountably and conscientiously. Virtually all of them do. But where they do not, we have no alternative but to act.
When I addressed the Council a year ago I said that I didn’t want to be there under those terms. I didn’t want to be intervening in their affairs. And I didn’t want to be spending large sums of public money on helping them to recover. I offered them a simple challenge: sort yourselves out, act responsibly for the people you represent and we will leave you alone. It is a challenge that they have clearly failed to meet.
Mr Llywydd, the actions and attitudes of too many of Anglesey’s councillors have indeed left me with no alternative. They have demonstrated that they care more about their personal standing than about securing recovery. They have spurned the chance to help themselves which Brian Gibbons gave to them with his original intervention, and the intensive support which they have received as a result. Most importantly, they have betrayed those who elected them, and those that they are supposed to serve.
The direction I am making today will help restore effective governance; it will ensure better strategic leadership; and it will protect vital services from the damage that continued petty political bickering causes. I intend that it will continue at least until the next local elections. But it is clearly not a long-term solution. That can only lie in the sort of democratic renewal that the Auditor General and my Recovery Board have advocated. So if Anglesey Council has a future, it is in the hands of the people of the island. All I have done today is to protect them for now from the harmful influence of those who have unfortunately consistently let them down. The people of Angelsey deserve better and this action intends to see that they get it.