The elections were postponed following the following recommendations by the Auditor General for Wales following his March 2011 re-inspection of Anglesey County Council:
"I also recommend that the Welsh Ministers direct the authority to develop and implement a strategy that promotes democratic renewal, and that Welsh Ministers provide assistance to the authority under section 28 of the Measure in pursuit of that renewal. In so doing, I also recommend that Welsh Ministers request the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales to review its proposals published in 2010 to ensure that the changes proposed adequately address the need for democratic renewal in Anglesey in terms of the number of councillors and the introduction of multi-member wards. If it is not possible to complete and implement this review by May 2012, I recommend that the Ministers consider using powers under section 87 of the Local Government Act 2000 to delay the Council’s elections until 2013."
Whatever you may think of the postponement of elections on Ynys Môn in order to ensure that the next election is conducted under an entirely new electoral system, it is surely not right for such a major decision to have been taken on the recommendation of just one man, the Auditor General for Wales — who is, after all, unelected. I would even go further and say that Huw Vaughan Thomas, the Auditor General and former Chief Executive of Gwynedd and Denbighshire councils, went beyond his remit in:
- recommending changes to the electoral arrangements which will result in Ynys Môn having uniquely different arrangements to every other county in Wales;
- recommending postponing elections in order to facilitate these electoral changes.
Either way, to my mind it is surely entirely proper that these dramatic and far reaching decisions should be subject to proper examination and some degree of democratic accountability through the means of a debate in the Senedd. Well done therefore to the Lib Dems in tabling the motion!
This is not however a view shared by our own AM, Ieuan Wyn Jones, who told the chamber:
"I am disappointed that the Liberal Democrats have decided to bring up this issue."
...before going on to say...
"The auditor is independent, and we need to be very clear in our reasons for going against the truly independent views that he has expressed. If the auditor believes, in his advice to the Minister, that democratic renewal can best be achieved by ensuring that multi-member wards are created, the best thing that we can do is allow time for that to happen."
So, according to Ieuan Wyn Jones, there is no need to even debate or discuss a recommendation made by the Auditor General. In which case, why do we need politicians like him? Its also worth remembering that Ieuan Wyn's own Plaid Cymru councillors in Ynys Môn were unanimous in opposing the delay of elections. The Lib Dem, Peter Black, succinctly explained why Ieuan was wrong:
"I refer to the comments from the Member for Ynys Môn, Ieuan Wyn Jones, when he said that he was disappointed that this motion was being brought forward. I believe that, on principle, if we are going to defer elections, then at the very least, Assembly Members should vote on the matter. I think that that is responsible and is absolutely right. The situation in Anglesey is unique, which is why we need to tread carefully and ensure that we do not forego the democratic principles, which is what we are doing by proceeding with this Order. The auditor general, who, by the way, is unelected, wants democratic renewal—that is precisely what we suggest and what we propose here as part of this motion."
Here are some other highlights from the debate.
Antoinette Sandbach AM (Conservative):
"People have a regular democratic right to give their verdict on their council at the ballot box, and this mandate has been removed from the voters of Ynys Môn. Meanwhile, the Welsh Government and Ynys Môn County Council have made decisions that will have a huge impact on the residents of Anglesey, and which those residents are powerless to do anything about this year because they have been denied the right to judge the council at the ballot box.
If there was an election in May, would the council have imposed the biggest council tax hike in the whole of the United Kingdom, at 4.5%? I do not think so. Would it have decided just days after this announcement to advertise four brand new senior management posts with a combined salary of more than £400,000 a year? I do not think so. Who is footing the bill for all of this? The answer, of course, is the council tax payers—the voters of Anglesey. Clearly, there are problems in Ynys Môn, but is the democratic process one of those problems? At the last council election, 25% of the council seats changed hands. The council was refreshed by the voters, so it is not as if the electorate did not use their democratic right to give their verdict on the conduct of the council at the ballot box. The people of Anglesey have the right to ask why its council is the only one in Wales to have multi-member wards imposed on it by the Welsh Government. Does this make the system more democratic, or do multi-member wards serve to widen the gap between the councillor and the constituent? Does this make political campaigning prohibitively expensive for independent candidates? Is the imposition of multi-member wards by the Minister really happening because the Minister does not like the results of the election in Anglesey? Postponing the election does not solve any of the problems; all it does is to remove the democratic right of the electorate."
Peter Black AM (Lib Dem):
"Democracy is about empowerment and not about diktats from the centre. The question is: what do we mean by 'democratic renewal’? In my view, it means a democratic election in which voters can judge matters for themselves. Yet the residents of Ynys Môn are being denied that, which is why we believe that this Order has to be overturned. We have supported the intervention and the auditor general’s judgment on this issue, but it is argued that we cannot allow this issue to continue without elections. If elections took place, it would not mean the end of the intervention board, as the Minister indicated, but would give the board the opportunity to work with councillors with a fresh mandate and those councillors could demonstrate the support of the electorate. Decisions are being taken that would not have been considered if there were elections this year. That cannot be right and we believe that if we are to restore any credence to the democratic process, we have to have elections in Anglesey along with the other 21 councils on 3 May."
Mark Isherwood AM (Conservative):
"The Isle of Anglesey council has been dogged by scandal since its formation in 1996. Serious allegations relate mainly to planning and to grants, and specifically to the council’s senior management and corporate governance. However, only in his statement last month did this Minister finally acknowledge that these areas need radical reform. Until now, the rhetoric from Welsh Government has all been about democratic renewal to tackle 'chronic political infighting and misbehaviour’. Three weeks ago, the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales dropped a case against Anglesey councillor Elwyn Schofield on the grounds that the evidence was contradictory and largely uncorroborated. This case was brought by the former interim managing director, who also obliged council group leaders to sign terms of engagement that forced them to publicly and robustly condemn this councillor and other named councillors. That ultimately led to the appointment of commissioners, the postponement of local elections and drastic local boundary changes. Last March, the Minister announced that he was replacing the elected executive with commissioners paid £500 a day. The first two commissioners he announced were a Flintshire Labour colleague, criticised for presiding over a series of scandals at Flintshire County Council—all documented by independent reports—and the man who was chief executive of the then Labour Cardiff County Council when it was rocked by a multi-million pound scandal over unlawful expenses. When I met leading Anglesey councillors last December, they told me that
'the problem was always corporate governance in an Officer led Council, not members with horns on their heads’.
'Councils in the rest of Wales are being allowed four years to change their electoral boundaries, but Anglesey was only being given 4 weeks just before Christmas’."
Aled Roberts AM (Lib Dem):
"Our reason for bringing forward this motion is that it is our judgment that the boundaries are not the reason for the political challenges facing the county. Many county councils that consist entirely of single member wards do not face the same political difficulties that led to the imposition of commissioners. Similarly, there are multi-member ward councils that do not operate effectively.The council has just had to pass a budget recommended to it by the commissioners. Given the situation, and the fact that the council is under heavy supervision from the Government, in reality it would have been impossible for the council to reject the budget. This has led to an increase of 4.5% in council tax next year, which is the highest of any council in England and Wales. If there are no elections this year, and the commissioners remain in place, an additional budget will be passed next year by the council based on representations made by the commissioners. We believe that this denies the people of Anglesey an opportunity to vote for an administration of their choice to take the island forward for the next few years. Furthermore, there is little evidence in the council’s internal minutes to suggest any real action taken with regard to efforts of democratic renewal with the current councillors. Therefore, the position will be that, if democratic elections are held next year and the same councillors are returned, to all intents and purposes, no real effort will have been made to change behaviours that have, quite clearly, been in place in that county for a number of years.A delay of a year before elections are held on the island is unacceptable. If any council is in need of democratic renewal, it is Ynys Môn, and the best way of ensuring democratic renewal is through holding elections."
The motion was defeated 33 votes to 17.