DefoGog – a new word that makes sense for North Wales

On Thursday night’s Pawb a’i Farn I managed to trigger a debate on “DefoGog”. My question:

Da ni’n clywed cryn dipyn am Devo Manc dros y ffin yn Ogledd Lloegr. Wel beth am Defo Gog – awdurdod strategol i’r Gogledd, yn cynnal gwasanaethau ar y cyd ac yn atebol i bobl Ogledd Cymru?

In English:

We have heard a lot about Devo Manc over the border in the North of England. So what about Defo Gog – a strategic authority for North Wales, commissioning joined up services and accountable to the people of North Wales?

Cardiff feels pretty distant from North Wales – after all it takes longer to get there than it does to London! And this feeling of power residing “elsewhere” is a dangerous one for democracy. Plaid Cymru are wrong to claim the North is being treated unfairly by the Welsh Government and Siôn Jones (our excellent candidate for Arfon who was on the platform for Labour) was right to challenge this line. We have three excellent Welsh Government Ministers who represent North Wales and it isn’t about “them and us”. Rather it is about ensuring (as Aled Roberts for the Lib Dems said) that decisions are taken at the most appropriate level.

We have a series of quangos governing North Wales – some accountable to the Welsh Government and some of them established as joint bodies by the local authorities. It is the same in Greater Manchester. The ten local authorities in Greater Manchester have got together and agreed a new governance model with the Westminster government which will enable them to drive integration and innovation across the city region.

My vision is that we do the same in North Wales. Not exactly the same, because the Westminster Government has insisted on a single elected individual (City Mayor) to lead the new “combined authority” and I favour a collective approach – but the same in the sense of having a joined-up approach with clear accountability.

Some of the panellists thought this was about having a single local authority for North Wales. Quite the reverse: if we ensure that the services that ought to be managed across North Wales are managed efficiently and clearly accountable, there is absolutely no need to centralise everything. This is a clear alternative to local government reorganisation and a rejection of the “one size fits all” mentality.

I grew up in Cardiff and the distinction between South Glamorgan County Council and Cardiff City Council was frankly baffling. Clearly moving from a two-tier system to a unitary authority was going to make sense. You can argue about whether it is better for the Vale of Glamorgan to be part of Cardiff or not – but having some functions where it is in and some where it is out and two sets of politicians and two sets of highly-paid officers to pursue the argument makes no sense.

But in North Wales there is a strong case for having two levels of accountability – the strategic services which need strong professional management and leadership across the region, and the local decisions about community facilities. It is a two and a half hour journey from Aberdaron to Marchwiel so the understanding of community centres, local schools or traffic conditions is going to be fairly limited – but it doesn’t make sense to have more than one Chief Constable, Director of School Improvement or Director of Medical Services across the region.

There are two views of democracy: one is about electing a “strong leader” to do things. This is the view that underpins presidential systems and the drive for directly elected Mayors and Police & Crime Commissioners. The other is participatory democracy – where taking a bit longer over decisions by seeking the views of all the stakeholders and reaching a consensus is favoured. Of course in a crisis quick decisions are essential – which is why the military and police have a clear command and control structure. But governance of those functions by civilians should favour the latter approach. I have worked for two directly elected Mayors – Jules Pipe in Hackney and Martin Winter in Doncaster. Jules would check the governance before a meeting and even if he was told that the decision was technically his alone, would go into the room and seek to persuade. He generally came out with agreement to his suggestion. Faced with a scrutiny report where he agreed with 30% of the recommendations he would focus on those he agreed with and congratulate them on their work and explain that regrettably he was unable to agree to the rest of the recommendations.

Martin Winter took the opposite approach. He wouldn’t check the detail and would miss the fact that he needed full council agreement on some of the details. He would tell the councillors that the Mayoral system meant it didn’t matter what they thought because he had decided – and then would be surprised when the necessary consents were withheld. If he agreed with 70% of scrutiny recommendations he would focus on telling them that their other recommendations were stupid and why.

This is of course goes a long way to explain why Jules Pipe remains Mayor of Hackney and is very well-regarded while Martin Winter has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Police and Crime Commissioners have found that the key levers for reducing crime and disorder aren’t necessarily under their control. Community safety requires joint working with local authorities and communities. Health Services and Fire and Rescue have an important role to play. So any commissioner who focuses on the importance of something being “up to them” rather than seeking to secure a consensus will be frustrated and ineffective.

The Tory idea of introducing Health Commissioners would face the same problem – what is needed is joint strategic leadership of public services so that they work together. Likewise their idea of transferring Fire and Rescue to Police & Crime Commissioners would weaken the links with local government without securing overall cohesion.

What is needed is a joint strategic authority –with co-operation and joint working as its organisational principles not just internally, but by working with the local authorities, the Welsh Government and with devolved bodies across the border in the North West of England. Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council recently talked of the potential benefit to be gained by improving the links.

The Devo Manc model has embraced the idea of joint working, not just between the ten local authorities in the Greater Manchester region, but by placing policing and health within the same governance framework and securing new powers to promote economic development. Welsh Government would need to get the UK Government on board to deliver a similar approach to North Wales – but given that it has been agreed for Manchester and is already in place for London, why not? Subsuming the standalone job of Police & Crime Commissioner into a strategic authority that was also responsible for economic development, transport, health, social care, education, tourism and fire and rescue would be far more appropriate.

If I was elected as Police & Crime Commissioner for North Wales I would fulfil the personal responsibilities of the post, but by building as much of a consensus as possible on decisions rather than relying on my ability to over-ride objections. And rather than seeking to protect my own power base I would work with elected politicians across the region and across politics to secure a more sensible, collegiate approach for the future.


3 thoughts on “DefoGog – a new word that makes sense for North Wales

  1. Lots of sense here. The (current) 6 counties of North Wales is a very natural entity and just about big enough to take meaningful responsibility for much that currently resides at Cardiff or Westminster. Go Gog!

  2. The problem with DevoGog is that it would probably just localise the same old complaint. Instead of “everything is geared to the south and the north is ignored”. We would have “everything is geared to Deeside / Arfon what about Conwy / Meirion / Maldwyn?” Rather than having DevoGog I would prefer to see a revival of an old term from the 1990’s SUBSIDIARITY – devolving everything to the lowest practical level! Empowering community and county councils to do much more on a micro local basis rather than having another level of regional government taking away from the local level.

    • I agree Alwyn that subsidiarity is the right principle – and I think part of the problem has been the attempt to decide “the right level” for organisational reasons instead of democratic reasons. It would be entirely reasonable for example to say that school improvement is an activity best organised across North Wales while saying that decisions about individual schools (school mergers, language policies etc) should be taken much more locally. The fact is that we already have a regional level of government (police, fire, health, school improvement, tourism, economic development), we just don’t have enough accountability for it.

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