Alun Davies, AM, Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services
A Review of the Community and Town Council Sector was established in July 2017 by the Welsh Government to consider how community and town councils can be strengthened so they are best able to support their communities. The independent cross-party Review Panel included representation from Labour, Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Conservative and Welsh Liberal Democrats and was jointly chaired by Gwenda Thomas and Rhodri Glyn Thomas.
The Panel spent around a year gathering evidence and listening to views of a range of stakeholders. They submitted their final report to me on 3 October. I am grateful to them for the time and consideration they have given to the Review and for their report on Community and Town Councils in Wales. It has provided a good basis on which to move forward and has informed the policy approach I am setting out today.
I have read and considered the Panel’s report and I believe their analysis of the sector and the opportunities and challenges it faces is sound. They make the case for both retaining the community and town council sector and for significantly enhancing the contribution it makes.
I agree with the direction of travel set out in the report which calls for an expanded role for the sector. After careful consideration and discussion at Cabinet, I believe an enabling approach is the right way to deliver this expanded role – strengthening community councils, and encouraging change to happen naturally by creating an environment for community and town councils to expand their activities where they could, and should, play a greater role, based on local need.
The emphasis should be on encouraging and enabling the sector to develop; providing an element of choice for community and town councils to decide how far and how quickly they progress, particularly in terms of their role in commissioning and delivering services. This provides a clear, national statement of ambition which recognises the diversity of the sector and the communities they serve.
There are key actions we can take now to strengthen community councils and support them through changes they may wish to make. Where there is broad agreement – and where we are building on what is already happening – there is no need to delay. For example, the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill, which I intend to introduce early next year, will provide additional powers and flexibilities for community councils by enabling those which meet certain conditions to exercise the General Power of Competence.
I intend to increase the accountability and transparency of the sector by encouraging better use of digital tools to engage communities and, through the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill, ensuring people have the right to make representations on any business conducted at a council meeting. I also intend to require, through legislation, community and town councils to report annually. I believe this will increase visibility of their work, improve local accountability and lead to better engagement with and interest from, local communities in the work of community councils.
Strengthening the capability of the sector will continue to be a priority and I will be supporting through continuing to make bursaries available to both councillors and their staff to undertake training. In addition, the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill will place an obligation on community councils to consider and plan for their training needs and review this plan regularly.
Some of the issues identified by the Review Panel merit further consideration and consultation on how to proceed. For example, further consideration is required as to whether a clearer distinction between what communities councils are responsible for and what principal councils are responsible for would help clarify the role of the sector; and whether additional, proportionate, intervention and support arrangements should be put in place.
I also want to facilitate a conversation between community and town councils and local authorities about how services are funded and sustained – recognising that this is a key determinate of community councils’ capacity to play an expanded role.
I look forward to exploring these wider ranging and, in some cases, more contested ideas with local government and wider stakeholders.
I see this as a start of a conversation about how an expanded role for community councils can be achieved - with community councils, principal councils and others that work with communities.
In setting out Welsh Government policy it should also be remembered that the findings of the Review Panel are not only for Government to reflect on but for all partners in local government to consider and respond to, including community councils, principal councils and their representative bodies; taking responsibility for the role each of us play in improving local communities.
I believe the policy approach I have outlined is considered, proportionate and measured and forms the starting point of a conversation with the sector itself and those it works with. It responds to the calls in the report for greater clarity for the sector; provides opportunity for councils to strengthen through building their capacity and capability; and puts in place processes to increase accountability and increase participation.