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The Big Welsh Society

July 6, 2011 4:23 PM
By Peter Black
Originally published by Peter Black and South Wales West Liberal Democrats

Peter Black: May I say how relieved I am to move on to a more philosophical debate than the more focused previous debate? First, the motion in front of us is an important one. Although the Liberal Democrats are part of the UK Government implementing the big society, that does not mean that we will automatically support this motion in Wales. Before bringing in a similar proposal in Wales, we would need a lot more detail about how exactly it would work and what the implications were for Welsh society. In fact, I have a natural aversion to any philosophy that has the word 'big' in it, largely because I have always looked to empower individuals and communities rather than looking to a philosophy that is imposed from the centre, which is what we are looking at here. If we are looking to empower people, we need to do so from the grass roots upwards rather than from the Welsh Government downwards, and that is a crucial difference between how the Welsh Liberal Democrats and the Welsh Conservatives consider this motion.

I am particularly interested in the localism and communitarian aspect of the big society. My politics have always been rooted in my community, as is the case for many Liberal Democrats. The way that that works is by empowering people to do things themselves as well as acting to support them to solve problems. The Welsh Government can do a number of things that will assist that process, not just empowering people, but empowering the institutions that the Conservatives have talked about, particularly local government, ending the practice of ring-fencing grants, which can often force local communities to follow someone else's spending priorities. An example is the road safety grant, which is available to local authorities; it will fund a pedestrian crossing, but not the improvements to the pavements around the pedestrian crossing that might make it safe. They can be quite prescriptive in that regard. It can audit the effectiveness of statutory duties, getting rid of those that create paperwork without improving services.

I also support a community bill of rights that would give communities a greater say over important issues such as planning application objections, improving access to public buildings in the community and strengthening the role of community councils. We are quite firm, as Welsh Liberal Democrats, that the centralising agenda-which has been a feature of the Welsh Government since the Assembly was established-is not appropriate and needs to be rolled back. We need to pass and devolve powers further down to communities-not just to institutions, but also to individuals and communities.

On Government programmes, we talked yesterday about Communities First as a particular example. The proposed changes before us seem to be a centralisation of the administration of that scheme, whereas if you were to look at it from a more empowering basis, you might let local councillors take the scheme on in their area to a set of formal guidelines. That is the difference between the centralising and the empowering agenda.

Power is about more than who provides a service. A group of residents collaborating to run a community service is one thing, but active residents' associations pushing and agitating different service providers in the interest of the local community are another. Transferring responsibility for the service from the state to society is not enough. Power in itself is not enough. Individuals also need the confidence, capacity and opportunity to exercise that power in co-operation with others. The creation of a political system in which groups have the power, the will, the knowledge and the technology to influence and affect the making of decisions in which they have an interest is far more appropriate than a big society that says 'Instead of big Government doing it, we will get local government or the voluntary sector to do it'. You are often passing these powers down without the finances to deliver an effective service. In discussing this motion, we must have regard to how it will be implemented in Wales. If we are not empowering communities and letting them take charge of their own destiny, it is not an appropriate way forward. What I have heard so far of the big society does not meet those criteria.