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This introduction to local government will help you understand how local decisions affecting the lives of people in Wales are made and who makes them. It will explain the importance of local people being involved in this decision making and how the decision making process in Wales fits in to the wider UK legal and political system.

What is local government?

Local government is a term used to describe the part of government that controls and makes decisions for a local area, such as a town, city, county or county borough. It makes provision for a range of important and necessary services for the people who live in that area. There are 2 parts of local government. These are county or county borough councils, also known as principal councils and community and town councils.

Principal councils

There are 22 of these councils. Each one is responsible for the provision of local government services within its area. The law says they are legally obliged to provide social care, housing, planning, refuse and recycling services to the people in its area. 

Community and town councils

There are 734 community and town councils in Wales. They are not required to provide any specific services by law, and some areas do not have a community or town council. Examples of services which might be provided include the provision and upkeep of village halls, playing fields and open spaces, seats, shelters, street lighting and footpaths.

All councils are made up of councillors. In Wales there are many councillors representing people across Wales. They are chosen as councillors through elections. When people stand for election they put themselves forward to represent the people in their area in the council. They are called candidates. In an election the public choose the candidate who they want to represent them. The public does this by voting for the candidate they think best represents them and their interests. Some candidates are members of political parties. Other candidates are independent and do not represent political parties. Some people are under-represented in government. This means there are not many people like them in elected roles and a key objective is to change this by encouraging greater diversity within local democracy.

Read further information about when and how councils are elected.

What is the UK structure for making laws

Local government sits within an overall legal framework within the UK which includes the UK Parliament and the Welsh Parliament or Senedd.

The UK Parliament is made up of 3 parts:

  • The Crown, which refers to the functions of government and those who are employed to work for the government. These employees are known as the civil service.
  • The House of Commons is the first chamber of Parliament. It is made up of members elected by the UK public to represent their interests and concerns. They can propose new laws and raise issues about government proposals. They are known as members of parliament or MPs.
  • The House of Lords is the second chamber in Parliament. Membership is granted by appointment by the government, inherited through family birth right or by position within society such as holders of specific church roles. 

Parliament's main functions are to conduct debates, to make and change legislation (laws) and to keep under review the work of the government to ensure the laws passed are fair and necessary. The UK Parliament decides what laws and roles are given to the Senedd for implementation in Wales.

The structure in Wales

In Wales, the Senedd is a group of 60 elected members from different parts of Wales. These are called members of the Senedd or MSs. There are 40 constituency members and 20 regional members. Senedd reform plans will mean changes to the number of members of the Senedd and the voting system. This section will be updated as changes are made. The Senedd:

  • makes new laws for Wales in the areas it is responsible for
  • members speak up for people in their part of Wales

Members are responsible for all the people of Wales and ensures its communities are treated fairly within the law it makes.

Laws made by the Senedd and Welsh Ministers are made specifically for Wales. 

The Welsh Government consists of the First Minister, Welsh Ministers and the Counsel General. They are supported by civil servants who work across devolved areas that include key areas of public life such as health, education and the environment.

The framework for local government in Wales is the Local Government Act 1972. This Act has been substantially amended since its enactment including, significantly, by the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 which established the current system of principal and town and community councils. 

The Welsh Ministers have a general supervisory role in relation to local government in Wales and determine and fund the majority of the annual revenue and capital settlements for local government. Under the Government of Wales Act 2006 the Welsh Ministers must make a scheme setting out how they propose, in the exercise of their functions, to "sustain and promote local government in Wales”.

What does the term local government family mean?

The term local government family is a collective term used for the following:

Fire and rescue authorities (FRAs)

There are 3 fire and rescue authorities in Wales:

  • North Wales Fire Authority
  • Mid and West Wales Fire Authority
  • South Wales Fire Authority.

The powers and duties of fire and rescue authorities are set out in Part 2 of the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004 (FRSA 2004). Their core functions are:

  • promoting fire safety
  • fire-fighting
  • responding to road traffic accidents
  • dealing with other prescribed emergencies

National park authorities (NPAs)

There are 3 national park authorities in Wales:

  • Bannau Brycheiniog
  • Pembrokeshire Coast
  • Eryri

NPAs have 2 purposes:

  • to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the National Parks
  • to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities (of the parks) by the public

Corporate joint committees (CJCs)

Exercise functions relating to strategic development planning and regional transport planning. They are also able to do things to promote the economic well-being of their areas. There are 4 CJCs:

  • North Wales Corporate Joint Committee
  • Mid Wales Corporate Joint Committee
  • South East Wales Corporate Joint Committee
  • South West Wales Corporate Joint Committee

What are strategic partnerships and what do they do?

There are a number of strategic partnerships with members from across public services, e.g. principal councils, local health boards, fire and rescue authorities, national park authorities and community and town councils.

Examples of partnerships include:

  • Regional Partnership Board
  • City Deals/Growth/Ambition Board
  • Community Safety Partnership
  • Adult’s and Children’s Safeguarding Partnerships
  • Regional Housing Support Collaborative Groups
  • Area Planning Boards (substance misuse)

In addition, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 established a statutory board, known as a public services board (PSB), in each local authority. PSBs improve joint working across all public services in each local authority area in Wales. 

The 4 statutory members of each board are the local authority, the local health board, the fire and rescue authority for the area and Natural Resources Wales. The statutory invitees include the relevant Chief Constable, Police and Crime Commissioner, probation services and representative of the voluntary sector.

There are currently 15 PSBs: Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Monmouthshire, Newport and Torfaen have merged to form Gwent PSB, RCT and Merthyr Tydfil have merged to form Cwm Taf, and Conwy and Denbighshire are a merged PSB. Anglesey and Gwynedd formally collaborate on their well-being plans.

What is the Partnership Council for Wales?

The Partnership Council for Wales (statutory under section 72 of the Government of Wales Act 2006) encourages joint working between Welsh Government and local government. Its membership includes the First Minister and all Welsh Government Cabinet Members, local authority leaders (principal and town and community councils) and representatives of wider public services. Public service reform partners such as the Auditor General for Wales, and representatives from Wales TUC and Wales Council for Voluntary Action are observers at meetings.

Key responsibilities of the Partnership Council for Wales are to encourage dialogue and collaboration on matters affecting local government in Wales, and provide collective political accountability to improve outcomes for citizens.

Are there any other bodies that contribute to how local government works?

Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales (IRPW)

Often referred to as either the IRP or the Panel is responsible for deciding the level of remuneration to elected members of all types of councils, national park authorities and fire and rescue authorities in Wales.

Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales (LDBCW)

Often referred to as the Commission or LDBCW, is responsible for determining how many electoral wards each county or county borough in Wales is divided into and how many councillors are able to represent each electoral ward. The purpose behind regular reviews of electoral arrangements is to account for the impact of constant change in communities by ensuring each local councillor represents roughly the same number of people.

How do I know if the council is performing and improving as it should?

The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 provides for a new and reformed legislative framework for the performance and governance of local government.

The new approach as set out in the Act is designed to be a more streamlined, flexible, sector-led approach to performance, good governance and improvement. The intention is for councils to be proactive in considering how internal processes and procedures should change to enable more effective planning, delivery and decision-making to drive better outcomes.

The purpose of the performance and governance provisions in the Act is to build on and support a developing culture in which councils actively seek and embrace challenge, whether presented from within the council, for example through scrutiny procedures, or externally. The provisions are designed to provide a framework which supports councils, through an ongoing process of review, to think about their performance and effectiveness now and for the future; to encourage more inquisitive organisations willing to challenge themselves to do more; and to be more innovative and more ambitious in what they do.

The Act requires each council in Wales to keep under review the extent to which it is meeting the ‘performance requirements’, that is the extent to which:

  • it is exercising its functions effectively
  • it is using its resources economically, efficiently and effectively
  • its governance is effective for securing the above

The mechanism for a council to keep its performance under review is self-assessment, with a duty to publish a report setting out the conclusions of the self-assessment once in respect of every financial year. Self-assessment will be complemented by a panel performance assessment once in an electoral cycle, providing an opportunity to seek external insights (other than from auditors, regulators or inspectors) on how the council is meeting the performance requirements.

The Welsh Government has published statutory guidance setting out how principal councils should meet their duties contained in Part 6, Chapter 1, of the Act which relates to the performance and governance of principal councils.

Chapter 1 of the statutory guidance for the performance and governance of principal councils also sets out the wider context and environment in which the performance and governance regime operates including the role of external regulation and inspection.

It is expected that local government, Welsh Government, auditors, inspectors, regulators and commissioners will continue to work together to share intelligence, raise cases of possible concern and agree approaches to support improvement.

What is local democracy and why is it important?

The principle at the heart of democracy is that every person is equal and should have an equal opportunity to influence change through the democratic system. This is fundamental to the politics and society in Wales. Local democracy ensures that local policies and services reflect the needs and preferences of local communities. Effective local democracy supports public participation, improves service delivery, strengthens communities, makes effective use of resources and reflects the diversity of the communities it serves.

Local democracy is based upon local people making decisions about the way they are governed, how law is interpreted and how the services they rely on daily are delivered. For local democracy to work effectively, it is important that all parts of society are represented so that the services and laws take into account the different backgrounds, customs, cultures and challenges faced by all people in the area.

It is important people have an opportunity to understand why decisions are required and how they are reached. That they have confidence the right things have been considered and that those taking the decisions have considered the impact on the lives and opportunities of the people they have been elected to represent.

Where people are not able to identify with those taking decisions about their future it is more difficult for them to understand why a particular course of action has been chosen. Councillors representing people in communities in Wales operate on the trust and goodwill of the people and have to exercise this carefully.

In Wales, a number of Welsh laws which include Senedd Measures and Acts, including most recently the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021, (the 2021 Act) have set out arrangements for strengthening local democracy.

The 2021 Act provides greater opportunities for people to get involved with local government and participate in local democracy. Young people aged 16 and 17 and foreign citizens legally resident in Wales have the right to vote. It will also be easier for a broader range of people to stand as a candidate in a local government election.

Public engagement and participation in local democracy is important. Principal councils in Wales are required to encourage local people to participate in local government decision-making and scrutiny procedures. In addition, councils are required to prepare, consult on, publish and review a ‘public participation strategy’, with the aim of making it easier for members of the public to understand how local government functions; how it makes decisions; and how local people can follow proceedings, input their views, and have them taken into account.

Further information about participation in local democracy is contained in Part 3.

Why is diversity in democracy so important?

Society is made up of a range of people. Some of these people are not as well represented as others. This may result in services, laws and decisions about daily life being made without understanding the needs of some people. The Equality Act, which came into force on 1 October 2010, replaced previous anti-discrimination legislation such as the Race Relations Act of 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995. The Act introduced ‘protected characteristics’ and seeks to ensure people within those categories are not at a disadvantage.

The characteristics that are protected by the Equality Act 2010 are:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage or civil partnership (in employment only)
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

The Welsh Government has a series of plans to promote and support diversity in all aspects of life in Wales. These plans include:

What is the Social Model of Disability?

Since 2002 the Welsh Government has followed the Social Model of Disability. The Social Model of Disability is a way of seeing the world. It says that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment. These barriers can include:

  • negative attitudes like thinking disabled people cannot do things
  • physical barriers like stairs

The Social Model of Disability helps us to recognise the barriers that make life harder for disabled people. The Welsh Government is committed to working with partners to remove these barriers in the way we work, and would expect that the principles of the Social Model of Disability are reflected in local government approaches. We also help other services and organisations to think like this. We want to make sure disabled people can do things that non-disabled people can do.

What is the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act?

The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act (the Act) is about improving the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales.

The Act gives a legally-binding common purpose, the 7 well-being goals for national government, local government, local health boards and other specified public bodies. It details the ways in which specified public bodies must work, and work together to improve the well-being of Wales.

It will make the public bodies listed in the Act think more about the long-term, work better with people and communities and each other, look to prevent problems and take a more joined-up approach. Principal councils are included in the Act.

This will help us to create a Wales that we all want to live in, now and in the future. To make sure we are all working towards the same vision, the Act puts in place 7 well-being goals.

The 7 well-being goals are:

  • prosperous
  • resilient
  • healthier
  • more equal
  • globally responsible
  • vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language
  • cohesive communities

Where can I find out more?

Read further information on the Well-being of Future Generations Act.