Audit 2017: How democratic is local government in Wales?

Within Wales, the local councils provide the main focus for democratic politics below the devolved government in Cardiff, and organise the provision of most local services. As part of our 2017 Audit of UK Democracy, James Downe looks at how well they fulfil their roles.

six bells man blaenau gwent

A statue in Blaenau Gwent commemorates the Six Bells mining disaster in 1960, in which 45 men died. Photo: Ben Salter via a CC BY 2.0 licence

This article was published as part of our 2017 Audit of UK democracy. We have now published: The UK’s Changing Democracy: The 2018 Democratic Audit with LSE Press, available in all ebook formats. You can download the whole book for free, and individual chapters, including a fully revised version of this article.

What does democracy require of local governments in Wales?

  • Local councils should engage the wide participation of local citizens in their governance via voting in regular elections, and an open interest group and local consultation process.
  • Local voting systems should accurately convert parties’ vote shares into seats on councils, and be open to new parties entering into competition.
  • As far as possible, consistent with the need for efficient scales of operation, local government areas and institutions should provide an effective expression of local and community identities that are important in civil society (and not just in administrative terms).
  • Local governments should be genuinely independent centres of decision-making, with sufficient own financial revenues and policy autonomy to be able to make meaningful choices on behalf of their citizens.
  • Local governments are typically subject to some supervision on key aspects of their conduct and policies by a higher tier of government. But they should enjoy a degree of constitutional protection (or ‘entrenchment’) for key roles, and an assurance that cannot simply be abolished, bypassed or fully programmed by the Welsh government in Cardiff.
  • The principle of subsidiarity says that policy issues that can be effectively handled in decentralised ways should be allocated to the lowest tier of government, closest to citizens.

Recent developments

The structure of 22 local councils in Wales was called in question from 2014 when a Commission appointed by the Welsh government in Cardiff recommended a radical reorganisation to reduce numbers to 10 or fewer authorities (see below for details). The controversy over this debate was ended in 2016 when a new Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government announced that the proposals would be scrapped, and the exiting councils stay unchanged, but working together in future on a more regional basis.

Meanwhile, austerity funding was the most significant challenge facing Welsh local government. Councils are responsible for 28% of Welsh public service expenditure. Yet local authority revenue fell by £461m in real terms between 2010-11 and 2014-15, a 10% reduction. At a time of great uncertainty, councils have had to made tough decisions about where to devote scarce resource and considered new ways to deliver services to people. Regardless of the final regional arrangements adopted, Welsh councils are likely to face significant financial challenges for the next few years.

Historically, many south Wales councils were dominated by Labour and the party had far more councillors across Wales than any other party, reflecting its dominance of Welsh government and politics at a national level. Independents formed the second largest set of councillor, followed by Plaid Cymru and then the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in clear fourth and fifth place. The plurality rule voting system (first past the post) in local elections also assigned Labour disproportionately more seats than votes. In early 2017 they still controlled ten councils. Most other councils were in no overall control, reflecting Wales’s multi-party system and the importance of Independent councillors.

However, in May 2017 local elections took place in the early stages of the surprise general election campaign initiated by Theresa May, when Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party was still lagging badly in opinion polls, and the Tories seemed to be reviving in Wales. Labour lost 102 councillors and control of three councils (Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend and Merthyr Tydfil), but retained control of seven still. The Conservatives gained 80 more councillors, and control of a council (Monmouthshire) while Plaid Cymru also gained control of one authority (Gwynedd). Ten councils are under ‘no overall control’, with cross-party coalitions needed to make decisions.

Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (SWOT) analysis

Current strengthsCurrent weaknesses
Compared with other EU countries, the ratio of councillors to the electorate in Wales is relatively high, and council areas are relatively local and well-understood. The public are still largely unaware of who makes decisions and how. Citizens are often reluctant to get involved in local politics, unless an issue directly affects them. Only around one in ten or 12 citizens contacts their council in any given year, although this ratio is higher in rural areas.
Councils make significant efforts to keep councillors and the public informed of their decisions (but see below).Critics argue that the 1251 Welsh councillors are disproportionally ‘pale, male and stale’.
Studies show that most are over 60 years of age, and 99 in every 100 being white. Amongst those elected in 2017 just over a quarter (28%) are women (compared to a third in England). A Welsh Government push for greater diversity has not improved matters much.
The introduction of the ‘cabinet’ system in local government has made clearer where responsibility for decisions lies (at least internally) – either with an individual portfolio holder, a senior officer with delegated powers, the cabinet as a collective, or the council leader. Despite its commitment to less micro-managing, the Welsh government has outlined several overly prescriptive actions such as insisting that a councillor should hold at least hold four surgeries a year (which they have now backed down on). The Welsh Government needs to continue to make strategic decisions about the what, but allow local authorities the power to decide how they deliver things.
Local authorities have a generally good working relationship with the Welsh government, which recently recognised they ‘do not need to manage the detail of Local Authority business. We can, and should, leave more autonomy and decision-making with those who manage the delivery of services’ (p. 12).Despite a Welsh government commitment to putting ‘the citizen at the centre’ of public service delivery, there has been no clear and coherent strategy for encouraging citizen engagement with local services. Webcasting meetings and budget meetings have proved unappealing to an issue-focussed public who want to be involved at an earlier stage of policy-making. Councils have been slow to use digital innovations to engage with the public. So digitally adept young people ('millennials') are being asked to engage with an antiquated system.
Plenty of performance data has been produced, but not in user-friendly formats that enable the public to assess how well their councils are doing. Frequent changes in national performance indicators make comparison over time impossible. The Williams Commission (2014) concluded ‘the picture for too many of the public services in Wales is poor and patchy’.
After a consultation exercise that produced only 17 responses across the whole of Wales, the Welsh Government removed the statutory duty on local authorities to collect national strategic indicators. The data for 2015-16 showed an overall picture of improvement over 2014-15, with performance for seventeen indicators going up and twelve indicators showing a decline.

Future opportunitiesFuture threats
The 2015 Well-being of Future Generations Act aims to improve the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales. It sets out a range of duties for councils to ensure that every decision they make takes account of the needs of future generations as well as the existing population.Only 15% of local government income is currently raised through council tax. Councils are likely to be forced to raise council tax faster than inflation. There is no clear political appetite for the reform of local government funding.
A new, robust performance framework needs to put in place to ensure that there is sufficient evidence for the public to understand how Welsh councils are performing. More needs to be done to design outcomes measures which are meaningful to the public and performance need to be benchmarked against councils beyond Wales. The new regional collaborative arrangements need to be scrutinised from the start. Previous public service collaborations were not fully held to account.
A far greater variety of service delivery models now exist in Welsh local government, which include community trusts, local authority trading companies, community asset transfers, and mutuals. These span a range of services including culture, leisure, arts and adult education. They are likely to increase in their use as councils explore the opportunities provided by regionalisation. The Brexit process may be damaging to Wales local governments, whose disadvantaged areas have received considerable regional subsidies from the European Union which will no longer be available.
Councils need to consider how the public could help provide or co-produce services in the future, but there also needs to be a healthy dose of realism about the size and potential of such involvement. Changing the public mindset on who delivers services is going to be a lengthy process.
A new Local Government Bill (see below) is likely to see councils working together regionally on key services such as economic development, transport, and social services. But the precise arrangements of these collaborations needs to be finalised. Councils may be able to improve their financial resilience and offer better quality services.

The overall health of local politics in Wales

Some political scientists regard local elections as ‘second-order’ contests, because they are viewed by the public and media as being less important than other elections for the Welsh Assembly or Westminster general elections. Turnout rates for Welsh local government elections are generally quite high compared with other parts of the UK, touching 49% in 1999 and 44% in 2008, but with some lower scores (42% in 2004, and 39% in 2012). (For comparison, general election turnout was 66% in 2015, and 69% in 2017).

In 2017 and 2012 one in twelve councillors (8%) were elected unopposed, a somewhat higher proportion than in other parts of the UK. In one ward in Powys, there were no candidates and a by-election had to be held at a later date. Amongst town and community councils (which work on a micro-local scale within local authorities) only one in four are elected in contested races. Around a third of councillors elected in 2017 were new to the role, and there are many independents operating without any party organisation back-up, primarily representing their ward or community interests.

Chart 1 shows that Welsh politics is multi-party. However, the plurality rule electoral system produces some distortions, in an erratic manner. In 2012, Labour gained 47% of the councillors with a vote share of 36%, but in 2017 a quite similar vote share (35%) gave them a far smaller ‘leader’s bonus’, with 38% of seats. For the Conservatives in Wales, operating lower down the pecking order of parties, the relationship between the share of the vote and the number of councillors is not so favourable. In 2012, they achieved 13% vote share but this delivered only 9% of seats, and in 2017, a vote share of 21% gave only 15% of seats. The Welsh Government have recently outlined plans to allow councils to decide whether they would like to introduce the single transferable vote (STV) system for their local elections (used in Scottish council elections) in place of first past the post. Labour-controlled councils are unlikely to opt for changes.

Chart 1: How parties fared in Wales’ 2017 council elections, compared to 2012

PartyCouncils 2017Seats 2017ChangeSeats 2012
Plaid Cymru1203+33170
Liberal Democrat062-1173
Llais Gwynedd06-713
No overall control10

The Welsh Government are currently considering introducing a range of reforms to modernise electoral arrangements. Options include all-postal elections, electronic voting, and mobile voting. There is also a proposal to reduce the voting age to 16 for local elections. The introduction of STV is likely to have the greatest positive effect on future turnout rates, but the other proposals could also have potential to ‘get the vote out’.

Councils can clearly do more to engage citizens. Only 20% of the public agreed that they can influence decisions affecting their local area in a recent survey (Welsh Government, 2017). While cabinets formally meet in public, decisions are generally made behind closed doors in political group meetings. So at one level there is always clear agreement in public, but on the other hand real decision-making takes place elsewhere in party groups. The continuing prominence of ‘independents’ may raise issues of whether these councillors take a strategic view across the whole council (and increasingly, the whole of a wider region) rather than focusing on being local community concerns.

New regional structures: the Local Government Bill

There has been much debate about whether the 22 local authorities in Wales are too small for the effective delivery of public services. In 2014, the Welsh government’s Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery (known as the Williams Commission) recommended that councils should be merged to cut their number down to 10 or 12. The latter option was initially favoured by the Welsh government. But in 2015, they introduced a Bill which contained proposals for creating only 8 or 9 councils. A total of three Welsh Government White Papers in as many years have all examined options to reform local government (Welsh Government, 2014; 2015; 2017). However, the government in Cardiff was unable to gain enough political support to implement their reorganisation plans, either in the Welsh Assembly or within the local government sector. In 2016 the new Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government scrapped the previous plans, and in their place advocated a more collaborative approach. The existing 22 councils would be retained but would be grouped on a regional basis to work together in providing key services.

The Welsh government outlined a menu approach in 2017. allowing councils to choose the most appropriate scrutiny mechanism for the new regional structures. Local councils will have a choice of conducting individual scrutiny of the regional arrangements, establishing a joint regional committee, or using a mixture of approaches including task and finish groups. The theory is that councils are best placed to make the decision about what mechanism is best for their context. However, the Welsh government will provide a framework for ‘Joint Governance Committees’, so that everyone plays by the same rules.

How and where councillors fit into these arrangements is not really clear yet, however, nor whether the public will have access routes allowing them to be involved in the regionalised policy processes. Citizens are unlikely to be widely interested in processes and structures, but the prospect of services working to different geographical arrangements may cause confusion about accountabilities for members of the public. This could in turn increase feelings that local government is ‘remote’, despite the retention of familiar council areas. Given the three years of uncertainty over reorganisation, the new regional structures need to be implemented quickly, paying regard to local circumstances, and with clear messages for service users about how improved outcomes will be achieved.


The Welsh government’s approach to local government reform in 2014-2016 was ‘top-down’, confused and inconsistent. A more consensual style now prevails, keeping the existing 22 local councils, but enforcing statutory regional collaboration. There is a balance to be struck between Welsh government and Assembly direction and local discretion. However, just letting councils decide in a discretionary way on different mechanisms of holding decision-makers to account, as well as on different voting systems, may end up being confusing for citizens and stymie reforms where it is most needed. (For example, it seems very unlikely that one-party-dominated Labour councils will adopt STV voting, although that may be where such a change is most needed). It will be important for Welsh councils to try and ‘join-up’ behind the scenes so that the public’s experience of services is not adversely affected.

The Brexit process is also likely to have implications for Welsh public services. Wales has received a good deal of funding from the European Union in recent years, but the country nonetheless voted to Leave (52.5%) in the June 2016 referendum. Without access to the EU’s regional funding, it remains to be seen how councils will fare. Pessimistic voices suggest that poor outcomes are likely.

This post does not represent the views of the LSE.

James Downe is Professor in Public Policy and Management in the Centre for Local and Regional Government Research at Cardiff University.

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