Cheshire’s green belt burdens Wales

Aled R. Roberts says north east Wales should no longer assume responsibility for cross border housing

Is it acceptable for north east Wales to assume the burden of housing development on behalf of West Cheshire in order to protect their green belt? Consultations across the whole of north Wales have shown that our residents are not in favour of continuing with the pace of development seen over the last 20 years. It will be necessary for the politicians in Cardiff to re-think their strategies if they expect the north east to play its full part in devolution.

This is not a call for us to break our links with the north west of England, but I do think we need to re-consider the effects of creating a cross-border sub-region which then determines the framework in which local government and the Welsh Government operate.

This is an edited extract from Border Politics in North East Wales, the IWA National Eisteddford Lecture (available here) being delivered by Aled R Roberts AM today on the Maes at 11am in the Pabell y Cymdeithasau.

It is difficult for us to develop arrangements for the north west and north east of Wales separately. However, whilst pursuing these arrangements, we must have regard to the different circumstances between the two areas. We should re-consider the approach undertaken by the Wales Spatial Plan. Perhaps we should look at models such as the North Wales School Improvement Service which acknowledges these differences without suggesting that the future for north east Wales lies with ever closer ties over the border.

This approach allows different policy approaches to reflect differences and the challenge politically is to define the governance arrangements so that the structures are answerable to the local population and its elected representatives. The same challenge will be faced with the development of the elected Police Commissioner in North Wales and the arrangements regarding the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board.

It is my belief that the strength of the Labour Party previously in north east Wales has led to issues of accountability being held away from the area. We must resist the temptation to centralise power in Cardiff so that the people of north east Wales can feel that they have real influence in the development of their role within the new Wales.

Part of the problem for north-east Wales is the lack of recognised institutions within the region. The result is that our collaboration has tended to develop cross-border to the east rather than westwards. Economically we have a Chamber of Commerce which covers West Cheshire and North Wales. This raises issues as to whether the current arrangements can respond to the skills, infrastructure and business support agendas as they develop differently on both sides of the border. This will be particularly the case when the political colour of the governments on each side of the border  is different.

There is a need for a mature cross border relationship in areas such as health which take into account the possibility that political direction on each side of the border may differ. It is the responsibility of the politicians to define the nature of this new more mature relationship. Is it practical that in each case we develop separate north Wales arrangements in every case? Or are north Wales patients to be expected to attend a Welsh facility in the south? Isn’t the practical reality that patients will always have to travel across the border for specialist services in, say Liverpool? I can’t imagine a situation where, because of political ideology, a patient from Wrexham would be forced to go to Cardiff for specialist health services.

As we consider this new role for north east Wales we must be aware of the need for there to be more effective engagement between local politicians and their Assembly colleagues. We need to define precisely the position that we take here in north east Wales. It isn’t necessarily a choice between facing westwards or eastwards. My belief is that it is imperative that our area continues to develop its relationship with services in the north west of England as for one thing there is insufficient critical mass population wise in the north alone.

We cannot pretend that  there has been a consistent political approach across the region. It would appear that Flintshire has been ready to accept its role as part of the Liverpool City sub-region, whilst Denbighshire was never considered to be part of the policy. Meanwhile, Wrexham made a political decision in 2007 not to be considered as part of the plan. This is where the current policies of the Welsh Government to encourage local authorities to merge or collaborate may stifle the ability of individual areas to reflect local political aspirations. Let us not forget either that only 51 per cent of the population of Flintshire was born in Wales compared to Wrexham where it is well over 70 per cent.

Our relationship needs to mature. I believe that our politicians, and I include myself, have not accepted sufficient responsibility. Many of our current views and policies are based on studies and strategies developed by officers and civil servants that fail to address many of the political realities since 1999.

Aled R. Roberts is Welsh Liberal Democrat AM for North Wales and former Leader of Wrexham County Borough Council.

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