The Building of Successful Devolution

It’s time to accept that Welsh Governments have failed, and try something different, says Calvin Jones.

The path of Wales since devolution, economically, socially and ecologically, is the great disappointment of my professional life, and indeed to some extent the personal (although man, that recording contract that got away…).  What offered so much potential, at least for the quarter of us convinced by the devolution project, has run into the sand, not with a bang but with the whimpers of mediocrity, disinterest and petty parochialism. The contrast with Scotland, where a strong civic society, vibrant (and crucially different) political process and successful economy have been quickly built (or rather rebuilt or built upon) is stark. The Scottish comparison is unfair and inappropriate, but that cannot obscure the fact that after sixteen years and four governments, we can no longer offer growing pains and bedding in as excuses for poor regional political performance. If devolution were going to be transformative, or even significantly beneficial for Wales, there would be stronger signs by now. If the key success of the Assembly has been in its ability to protect us from the market-oriented policies and structural changes that the UK government has imposed on English health and education, that is faint praise indeed. There is no need to rehearse here the litany of missed opportunities in the economy, in the environment and, most shockingly and importantly, in education, as Adam Price recently did on this very site. However whilst Adam was somewhat correct in his diagnosis, he was less forthcoming in terms of presenting options for radical treatment. His answer would appear to be a slightly different sort of Welsh Government with a slightly different sort of policy-set (perhaps he will get the chance to try some of this). The truth however, is far less palatable. Devolution, as currently structured, has not just failed, but it cannot work, at least in the ways we need it to – as Dan Evans points out (with extensive reference to Gramsci, which means I need to buy him at least a pint). This is the great unmentionable amongst all political parties. Wales, in our ‘modern’ and globalised context, cannot be governed well.

For an economist (at least those of us who raise their noses long enough to notice the actual world), this is obvious. The economic structure of post-industrial South Wales is wholly unlike that of still-industrial North East Wales with different (and completely separate) labour markets, skills needs and geographic orientations. Anyone who works often in North West Wales knows it is economically (and to some extent socio-culturally) another country. Powys is… Powys. The idea that our disparate economies can be channelled and corralled towards higher ‘productivity’, and their varied natural and community assets effectively managed and directed from Cardiff Bay and Cathays is bizarre, especially when actual economic power – over interest rates, energy systems, currency and (most) taxes lies in London. Travel to North Wales and talk to businesspeople and public servants there, and you feel the distances: geographic, economic, policy. On the periphery of the periphery.

How to bridge this distance? How to re-engage people with politics and deliver autonomy through that engagement? The Welsh Government and National Assembly cannot do it. Wales is largely an industrial invention; a longstanding and integrated colony that shares much culture internally, yes, but in ways that matter little for economy and sustainable prosperity, however much we like to pretend otherwise. The only option is devolution: not the half-hearted regionalisation we have now, but the true movement of power closer to the people – power over towns and roads; over forests and fields; and over care, health and learning. The city-region project, whether you have reservations or not, offers an opportunity for radical change and even (God save us) experimentation. Economic resources – human, physical and natural – should be organised and controlled at the level of the functional economic area (although that is somewhat variable dependent on the chosen lens; an interesting debate for a new commission?). Transport, production and commonly provided services should be organised (as far as our neoliberal system allows) to spread opportunity – not necessarily ‘employee jobs’ – across these areas. Post-16 educational establishments, my own amongst them, should be tasked with training a workforce fit for local needs, with local partnerships holding the financial reins. People living in the shadow of the looming hills of the Valleys or Snowdonia should decide, within ecological reason, what should be on those hills. The fiction that ‘economic development’ and ‘regeneration’ are different must be taken around the back and shot. And of course, none of this is doable without capital. Swathes of resource – financial and human – must be taken out of (largely) the Welsh government and distributed to city regions or new counties, with these supported by a re-energised and necessarily more powerful hyper-local democratic layer, and by a raft of community structures.

Is this even possible? Well, whilst one should never over-emphasise the adoptability of ideas from elsewhere, it is notable that whilst the Basque Country (population, 2 million, language and custom, different, significantly richer than the Spanish average) has almost full fiscal control, the Basque government collects no taxes. Its three constituent regions are tasked with much of the day to day job of government, supported by 250 vibrant municipalities. Interestingly the Basques are largely blessed, despite Franco’s best efforts, with ownership of their own means of production.

What remains then, for the Welsh Government; for the turkeys that must vote for Christmas? Plenty. The Government, once it stopped trying to do things, could concentrate on where its input was needed. In charting Wales’ sustainable direction through binding regulation like the (flawed but necessary) Future Generations Act. In focussing on what it really likes doing anyway, courting inward investors (albeit with a far smaller and more agile department). In auditing and evaluating public bodies in Wales, and holding them to account when they fail, and providing key services and cross-regional infrastructures where the argument for economies of scale is strong.  And in avoiding ‘beggar thy neighbour’ games amongst the regions of Wales. We could build a government narrower in scope but all the better for it: with real competency in the art of government and in good governance. Who knows, they may even enjoy it?

We have, predictably, failed during the devolution era, not only to transform Wales but also to give any hint that we know what’s necessary to do so. This is (mostly) not the politicians’ fault: it was predictable because of the hand we were dealt. The lack of civic resources, public enthusiasm and economic control has, together with a grumpy and petty approach to devolution from Whitehall, stymied any effort to develop a truly Welsh approach or higher institutional quality. We have instead built a ‘UK-lite’ with hand-me-down economic approaches, with political power, important constituencies and the key money pipe concentrated in the South East, and with most other places losing out and, importantly, feeling they are losing out.  We cling on to a subsidy regime and a politics that is going away – and, due to the EU referendum, with a 50:50 chance that by the end of 2017 the game will have changed irrevocably, with huge implications for rural and urban Wales.

This is the bad news. The good news is that it does not have to be this way. The confluence of the Assembly elections, local government reorganisation, the Future Generations Act and the city regions project at least affords the opportunity to dust off Sue Essex’ Spatial Plan and think about how we should best govern Wales: or more properly our multiple Waleses. Our politicians, the usual mix of well-meaning public servants, sharp careerists, grizzled party hacks and the occasional bully, will not do this without being given to understand that, to reference a particularly successful and transformative conviction politician, There Is No Alterative.

We must destroy consensus politics in Wales, because it is the consensus of dozens of rabbits and a polar bear.

Now is the only time to start.

Calvin Jones is a Professor of Economics at Cardiff Business School

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