Carl Sargeant, Minister for Local Government and Communities
Last February, I updated the Assembly on the progress that the Isle of Anglesey County Council was making under the stewardship of my Commissioners. I was cautiously optimistic about the prospects for reducing and ending my intervention in the medium term.
Events since then have shown that that optimism was justified. My Commissioners have concluded that while there remain some concerns about the Council’s governance, there are no longer any serious risks. The Auditor General has reached a similar view, and recommended that I should begin planning how to end my intervention.
I agree with and accept the views of both. There is increasing evidence that a Council that was once a byword for misbehaviour, under-performance and petty squabbling is now concentrating effectively and consistently on the issues that matter to the island. Differences remain, as they always will in any democratic organisation. But the days of petty personal rivalries dominating the Council’s business seem to be largely over.
Recent developments have underlined that. In March, the Council had to set a budget and council tax rate in very difficult financial circumstances: it has operated on a shoestring for many years and has much less scope to make savings than many other local authorities. Yet Councillors approached that challenge with real maturity. They engaged fully with the Commissioners in formulating a draft budget and passed it almost unanimously after a sensible and focused debate. That would have been impossible just over a year ago.
There have also been problems with the proposed development of Wylfa B, when the leading companies withdrew. The potential that Wylfa B has for the economic regeneration of the island means that is undoubtedly a major setback for the island. But the response from the Council has been sensible and serious, with a strong mutual interest in securing fresh involvement from another company. There have been none of the recriminations and accusations that we would have seen in the past.
Finally, Councillors have been working with the Commissioners, the WLGA and my officials to overhaul the Council’s constitution and to make sure that it embeds and sustains some of the improvements we have seen. Again, those discussions have been highly positive and productive. They have yielded some radical changes which will strengthen good governance and which other local authorities may well want to emulate. They have also been free of the jockeying for personal advantage which so bedevilled Council politics in the past. Indeed, one of the main aims of the changes is to prevent that from ever happening again. It is clear that almost everyone wants to move on.
That intention is sincere and commendable, but I am not yet convinced that the Council is able to fulfil it alone. I have said before that the recovery will not be complete until we have renewed democracy on the island, and until elections take place on terms which are more likely to yield a representative and accountable council. That cannot happen until next year.
The Council also needs to finish recruiting a new and strengthened senior management team to bring stability, capacity and expertise; and to tackle some intractable problems of service delivery. Progress so far on this has been very good, with a high level of interest from some highly-qualified and well-regarded public servants. But until that team is in place and clearly functioning well, I cannot be sure that the recovery will be sustained.
I will therefore be extending my direction to the Council from the end of May to the end of September, to allow that recruitment to finish. Commissioners will remain in full control until then. If at that point they and I are content that the senior team is ready to take charge, and if progress elsewhere continues to be maintained, then I will start bringing my intervention to an end.
That would initially mean reducing the Commissioners’ presence and responsibilities. Councillors would resume control, subject to being overridden by Commissioners if they proposed to act unwisely or unreasonably. Commissioners would also support councillors and officers; and they would continue to monitor progress and advise me on that. I will discuss with my Commissioners the level of their personal involvement under this approach; but it is unlikely to entail having five Commissioners with a continuous presence in the Council.
As a consequence, I will also be asking the Independent Remuneration Panel to consider restoring senior salaries for members of the Council’s executive. I withdrew these last year when I transferred the executive’s powers to Commissioners; it can only be right that they are returned in some form if and when those powers are handed back.
This approach will allow us to test the sustainability of change in a controlled environment. It will mean an early return to local decision-making, with appropriate safeguards. If that proves successful, I should be able to end my intervention completely soon after next year’s elections.
Those elections will take place using new boundaries, and I expect to receive the Local Government Boundary Commission’s final proposals on those boundaries shortly. Many within the Council did not support their initial proposals. They are of course also free to oppose the final proposals: they will have at least six weeks to make representations to me. I will consider all constructive representations seriously; and I trust that in approaching this issue, Councillors will display the same maturity as they have on other major issues recently.
All I am doing now is making appropriate plans to phase out my intervention. I could restore the Commissioners’ full powers at any time, and will do so if the recovery stalls or if Councillors prove unable or unwilling to resume proper control.
On the other hand, if progress continues under the Commissioners’ stewardship, and if Councillors and officers carry on showing the same commitment as they have so far, we will be able to complete a fundamental and swift turnaround on Anglesey in little over two years. I look forward to being able to do so.
I will make a further statement to the Assembly in due course.