The proposed new powers delegated to local authorities to meet national policy objectives could make this year’s local election results very important in Wales’ rural areas. Equally, the interpretation of planning policy, economic development and distribution of the “levelling-up” money from Westminster – all are critically influenced at local authority level. This raises many fundamental questions about consistency and fairness between authorities within Wales, about scrutiny of policy as it’s applied at a local level, and most importantly, it raises a critical question about whether local authorities will have the resources to do the job.
In the past two years, our political engagement work has increasingly focused on Welsh Government policy as it’s applied at a local authority level. Distribution of economic support (notably during the pandemic lockdowns), business rates decisions and planning policy: these have always been in local government charge, but devolution at a national level almost seems to be matched by delegation of powers to a local level.
Laying aside the fine detail of the election results, there are three features to note. A very large rural expanse from Ynys Mon and Gwynedd, to Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire is now managed by authorities with a majority of Plaid Cymru councillors. We’re already seeing how Welsh Government policy is being influenced by Plaid’ via the Cooperation Agreement with Welsh Labour, made in the autumn. This is manifesting itself in, for example, the focus on second homes as a solution to tackle the affordable housing crisis, attention to the tourist pound, a greater emphasis on a national community food policy and greater differentiation between Wales and England in planning and economic development policy. These factors are all likely to be borne-out in decisions taken at county hall level and may affect rural businesses on the ground.
Allied to this, the second feature of the local election result is the existence of the band of councils run by a Welsh Labour majority. Urban – or suburban – they may be - most contain large areas of countryside, including many important rural businesses serving nearby towns and cities. Here, the influence of the Cooperation Agreement at national level, could again play a part in shaping local authority decisions.
Finally, the third feature of the result is the large number of local authorities, which are not under control of one political party. Interestingly, all bar one – Pembrokeshire – are in the East, from Flint, Conwy and Denbighshire, to Powys, Monmouthshire and Newport. A variety of forces are at work here: a resurgent Liberal Democrat base in Powys, but importantly an unpredictable community of independent councillors who fought their election campaign on mainly local issues.
Since the current Welsh Government came to power this time last year, it’s already given councils powers to penalise second home ownership and to levy a higher tax burden on holiday lets. Councils are likely to be empowered to levy a tourism tax at local level, and we expect more local authority powers to determine planning consent policy. We have already asked questions about how the UK Government’s Levelling-Up agenda really percolates down to benefit rural businesses, and how it can be distributed fairly. Many Welsh rural businesses are sited within more than one local authority – even cross-border into England. Following the local elections, as local authority members reconvene and get down to business in council chambers in all parts of Wales, they must not lose focus on consistency and competitiveness of the Welsh economy.