Senedd backs bill to “revolutionise” local government democracy in Wales

Elliot Chappell

Senedd members have backed legislation to extend the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds and foreign citizens in local elections, in a move that campaigners have said could “revolutionise democracy in Wales”.

The local government and elections (Wales) bill passed its stage four vote this evening. It makes changes to voter registration and allows councils in the devolved nation to switch to a single transferable vote (STV) system.

First Minister Mark Drakeford today welcomed the bill, which will require councils to consult on and publish a public participation strategy to make it easier for people to understand how local government works.

Commenting on social media after the Senedd vote this evening, the Welsh Labour leader tweeted in support of the legislation, saying that he is “pleased this historic bill has passed”.

He added: “It reflects our diverse nation and will modernise democracy in Wales. 16- and 17-year-olds, and foreign citizens who’ve made Wales their home, can now also vote in next year’s local elections – I’ll be glad to see this.”

The local government bill mirrors measures already passed by the Welsh parliament last year, which enfranchised 70,000 young people and 33,000 foreign nationals ahead of the upcoming Senedd elections next year.

Local government minister Julie James MS said: “This bill will enable a local democracy which reflects our diversity as a nation, provide local government with new ways to support and serve their communities and reinvigorate local democracy.”

Councillors in Wales are currently elected under a first-past-the-post system. Northern Ireland and Scotland have already legislated to provide for local authority elections to be held under an STV system.

The legislation passed by the Welsh parliament today will also allow councils the power to potentially act more freely through a “general power of competence” and enable them to voluntarily merge.

Electoral Reform Society director Jess Blair said: “This legislation could revolutionise democracy in Wales, bringing in a fairer, more proportional voting system, expanding voting to 16-and 17-year-olds, and changing the way local elections are run for the better.

“This is the culmination of years of campaigning and discussions and marks a real step forward for Welsh democracy. Wales is leading the way on reforming the way local democracy can work to ensure that even at the most local level, our democracy is fair and representative.

“These changes set a blueprint for the rest of the UK and shows just what is possible when there is the will to get it done. Now it is England’s turn to follow.”

The bill makes provisions for:

  • Reforming electoral arrangements for local government, including:
    • extending the voting franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds and foreign citizens legally resident in Wales, changes to voter registration, and
    • enabling a principal council to choose between the ‘first past the post’ or the ‘single transferable vote’ voting systems;A general power of competence for principal councils and eligible community councils;
  • Reforming public participation in local democracy;
  • The leadership of principal councils, including to encourage greater diversity amongst executive members and establishing a statutory position of chief executive;
  • The development of a framework and powers to facilitate more consistent and coherent regional working mechanisms;
  • A new system for performance and governance based on self-assessment and peer review, including the consolidation of the Welsh ministers’ support and intervention powers;
  • Powers to facilitate voluntary mergers of principal councils and restructuring a principal area;
  • Local government finance including non-domestic rating and council tax;
  • Miscellaneous provisions relating to:
    • information sharing between regulators;
    • abolition of community polls;
    • fire and rescue authorities; and
    • the local democracy and boundary commission for Wales, and public service boards.

The next round of local council elections in Wales is due to take place in 2022. Voters will go to the polls in the devolved nation next May for the 2021 Senedd elections. Labour recently announced its list of candidates.

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