Dr Dan Boucher stood as a Welsh Conservative European Parliament candidate in the 2014 elections and is author of ‘The Big Society in a Small Country’, published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs
Wales has a very proud tradition of localism. It is not for nothing that Wales is often characterised as a ‘community of communities,’ better understood from the bottom-up rather than from the top-down.
In this context it is very strange that the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff Bay has been so reluctant to celebrate localism.
Instead of embracing the Localism Act 2011, which came into effect in England in 2012, key provisions in the Act, like the community right to buy, remain unimplemented in Wales and others simply don’t apply.
This reluctance informs Labour’s approach to localism in economic development, and specifically the Welsh co-operative tradition.
It is no great surprise that a nation conceived from the bottom-up as a ‘community of communities’ should give rise to the man credited with having established the co-operative economic development model, Robert Owen. So one might have imagined that a Welsh Government would be particularly keen on giving local communities of employees the option of owning and managing the economic concerns to which they give their labour.
Despite the strong co-operative tradition, however, the Labour Welsh Government has failed to embrace the public service mutuals agenda, which – thanks to Conservative Ministers – has since 2010 delivered more than 100 mutuals in England, providing over £1 billion worth public services.
Indeed, lest anyone thought the Welsh Government were about to embrace this progressive policy agenda but were simply being very thorough with preceding research, the Welsh Government announced in March that they would only consider this alternative model of public service provision as a ‘least worst’ option if the alternatives were that the service cease or be privatised.
Specifically, the Welsh Government’s Action Plan on Alternative Delivery Models for Public Service Delivery asserts: ‘We advocate cooperative and mutual models of delivery and other alternative delivery models only as an alternative to ceasing or privatising services, as a ‘least worst’ option.’
This extraordinary statement is indicative of a profound failure to understand Wales, one which threatens to disinherit us from an important aspect of Welsh identity that should result in our leading the way in the injection of greater mutuality into public service provision rather than leaving it to England.
While Welsh Labour in Cardiff Bay is clearly more interested in bowing down to the sacred cow of state provision regardless of the outcome, the 2016 Welsh Conservative manifesto was much more sensitive to national tradition, setting out a clear commitment to create public service mutuals.
Moreover, even after the election there is still an opportunity for Wales to take a lead in this area thanks to another headline Conservative policy on localism which gave rise to the seminal 2011 White Paper, Unlocking Growth in Cities, and the ‘City Deal.’
Central to the challenge of securing a good City Deal is developing it out of a clear understanding of the strengths and potential of the region in question.
Many would regard the fact that 35.3 per cent of people in Swansea work in the public sector – the highest proportion of any Welsh local authority – as a weakness but in trying to develop a good bid, one has to ask whether this can be regarded as a distinctive specialism of the area that could inform future development.
Specifically, it could be argued that Swansea’s large public sector provides a basis for suggesting that it, and the other three local authority areas in the region (all of which have above average levels of public service employment), are ideally placed to develop a special interest in leading the way on the delivery of public sector excellence and reform, including through the injection of a greater measure of mutuality into public service provision.
To this end it is encouraging that the Swansea Bay City Region Regeneration Strategy 2013-2030 already provides some really quite positive statements:
Page 25 says that ‘…given the strong presence of public sector employers in South West Wales, partners should work collaboratively to explore opportunities for testing new approaches to public service delivery.’ It then goes on to talk about supporting employment growth within the indigenous business stock ‘including the promotion of innovative public service delivery models and community assert-ownership/management opportunities.’
Page 32, meanwhile, commits to: ‘Empower the community and voluntary sector to take a role in the development, delivery and testing of new approaches to public service delivery, including increasingly personalised provision.’
If these statements were developed to encompass a clear public service mutuals commitment and placed in the final deal document, this would – to the very real benefit of Wales – help the Swansea Bay City Region make up for the apparent inability of Welsh Labour in Cardiff Bay to overcome its statist inhibitions.
To this end there is a good case for arguing that the final deal should also embrace (in addition to the creative thinking in the current bid document, The Internet Coast) a commitment to create Britain’s first ‘Mutual Enterprise Innovation Zone’, with special access to tax reliefs like the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SIES), Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS), Venture Capital Trust (VCT), and other appropriate incentives.
This would be particularly appropriate because it was in Swansea in 1981 that Britain gained its first Enterprise Zone. It would also be a very ‘Swansea Bay Region and Wales affirming’ development both as a result of generating economic growth and also as a result of providing a basis for the expression and celebration of the radical ‘community of communities,’ bottom-up civic ethic that is so central to the identity of Wales.