An identity defined by devolution

Nick Webb looks at how the identity of Wales’ towns and cities has been sculpted by devolution

Next month the NATO summit comes to Newport. Admittedly part of the programme will take place in Cardiff, but Celtic Manor is the primary base. When NATO revealed their logo, Newport was unimpressed. The South Wales Argus does a great job of arguing the city’s corner and it was no surprise to find that newspaper at the forefront of the complainants. Yes, the logo features a cartoon version of the Transporter Bridge, but the name Newport is nowhere to be seen. The Argus highlighted the fact that previous host cities had their name clearly stated on the logo. Why then was the summit in Newport described only as “NATO Summit Wales”?

To some it was simply an affront to Newport; that the city was callously overlooked. This is a possibility but I think the reasoning lies deeper in the way the people of Wales have defined themselves in recent years. This, in turn, is closely linked to the particular form of devolution we have.

Before I joined a party, my first involvement in politics was as a very small part of the “Just Say No” to devolution campaign. I handed out leaflets in Cardiff Bay and wore a cap with the slogan emblazoned on it. I lost. I’ve actually never voted in a devolution referendum. In 1997 I was a month too young and in 2011 I was living outside Wales. However, interesting as the evolution of instruments of state has been during the first 15 years of devolution, I remain a sceptic. A pragmatic one who understands the reality of the situation, but nonetheless unenthusiastic about the form of devolution we have in Wales.

I stress “the form of devolution”. I am very keen on the principle of devolving powers closer to the people. I’m not seeking to revisit the debates of the past; the Assembly and Welsh Government are now well established. But let me go back to the debate of ’97 for a moment to address the nuances of different forms of devolution.

What unites us all as Welsh is a cultural awareness. It is why we are brought together by sport, music, language (whether we speak Welsh or not) and arts. The pride felt when Wales scores a try in the Six Nations is the same in Caldicot as it is in Amlwch. Politics is by no means devoid of cultural identity but its focus should be more on the pragmatic issues of economic growth and the well-being of citizens. When it comes to such issues a Wales-wide approach does not offer a logical or convincing solution.

At this point I would like to bring in the theory of the city region. Put aside the specific geography of the two currently in operation in Wales. Such boundaries are always going to be a matter of subjective debate. Think instead about the theoretical area within which people commute for work or study; where they tend to socialise; or when needed, in which they seek medical treatment or can call upon the emergency services. City regions have existed as long as cities have; they are not a political construct but a pragmatic response to societal needs and desires. Furthermore, there is no reason why the criteria I have just described for cities should not also be applicable for rural areas, although these would be less likely to have a clear single centre point.

In England there is beginning to be a political consensus towards devolution of powers to city regions. What has happened thus far is a trickle in comparison to the way powers have moved from Westminster to the Senedd but there are positive signs that this will increase. Wales, though, has been behind the curve. Enterprise Zones were introduced late in Wales, in a more centrally prescribed form and with a lack of detail as to how they should operate. There is no “New Homes Bonus” and no “City Deals” of the kind seen in England, which have brought not just finance but packages tailored to each city which include enhanced powers.

One could make the case that, in England, it is logical to devolve powers to account for the different needs of a population of 50 million while Wales, serving 3 million, is a different matter. There is some sense to this, but thinking back to those city region criteria, the ties that bind Cardiff and Wrexham or Newport and Bangor are not pragmatic, they are emotional and cultural. As such, devolution to regions is sensible.

The announcement by the Welsh Government of city regions for Swansea Bay and Cardiff Capital Region may be the first sign that an administration which has been inclined to see devolution as a process which stops at Cardiff Bay may be willing to allow some more power at a local level. It is very early days and it concerns me that the parameters of what a City Region board can do and how they can gain finance remain sketchy at best. Nonetheless, let us give this idea the benefit of the doubt for the moment, as it does offer the closest political recognition yet of the real geographic areas in which we live, work and socialise.

The absence of the name Newport from the NATO logo is disappointing, but it comes from an implicit perception of belonging to Wales rather than the cities and towns within it. I am not arguing that we should abandon our pride in the nation, but rather that we should not be surprised if a form of devolution which centralises power in a Wales-wide body leads people to a default assumption that our primary identity to the outside World is our nationality. In a globalised World in which cities often transcend the nation state this may require further consideration. The brands of our cities and towns could be stronger. If they had been maybe Barack Obama would have been visiting Newport in Wales rather than a part of Wales called Newport.

Nick Webb is co-Chairman of Newport Civic Society

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