Taking Wales forward?

Jess Blair says the Welsh Government’s Programme for Government fails in parts to offer much needed detail.

The Welsh Government have today published their Programme for Government, ‘Taking Wales Forward’ outlining their priorities and work programme until 2021. In its foreword First Minister Carwyn Jones outlines the Wales “we are determined to build over the coming five years”, one which is “prosperous and secure, healthy and active, ambitious and learning, united and connected”.

This all sounds overwhelmingly positive. Who wouldn’t want to be prosperous and healthy, secure and ambitious?

The problem is that this 16 page document (yes, really!) largely fails to deliver any idea of how all of this will be achieved. While its rhetoric is admirable and ambitious, the devil certainly isn’t in the detail of this document. In fact, as far as detail goes, there is very little.

Key pledges of this Programme for Government include some ambitious policies already in development: 30 hours of free childcare a week for working parents of three to four year olds, creating at least 100,000 high quality apprenticeships and delivering an extra 20,000 affordable homes. Many of these echo the Labour manifesto commitments that the party went into May’s election with.

Yet many of the other policies within the document are vague, with no explanation of how they will actually be delivered. Take for instance the commitment to ‘Promote Green Growth to create sustainable jobs for the future’. There is no ‘how’ or ‘what’ here, let alone any kind of target associated with this commitment. The same goes for the commitment to ‘work with partners to secure a prosperous future for Welsh agriculture, building on our early engagement following the EU referendum’. Under Health we see a commitment to ‘continue to improve access to GP surgeries’ and a pledge to ‘work to ensure good industrial relations in the interests of staff and patients’. Under the ‘Community Assets’ subject heading we see a commitment to ‘Develop a ‘Made in Wales’ approach reflecting Welsh needs and aspirations’. The lack of clarity over what all this actually means is quite alarming.

The problem with the lack of specific commitments in this document isn’t just that it makes it hard to know what the Welsh Government have planned over the next five years, but it also makes it difficult for the Government to effectively be held to account. By having an aspirational and undetailed aim, it’s very easy for Government to say they have met that through little action. If the last Assembly’s watchword was ‘Delivery’ then that is certainly not what is on offer here.

There’s been a lot of talk from the opposition parties today about the size of this document. Yes, 16 pages is remarkably short. The 2011 document (now, incidentally, not available on the Welsh Government website) ran to 51 pages. Yet, the size of the document should not denote its quality. Unfortunately, despite the admirable rhetoric, in this instance it seems to be precisely an indication of the lack of a plan the Welsh Government has to lead Wales over what is likely to be a tumultuous and challenging few years.

We can hope that this is just an initial document and more detailed policy plans will be published over the coming few weeks and months, but if this is the entirety of this new Government’s programme of action then I think there is a real cause for concern over where Wales will be in 2021. 

Jess Blair is the IWA’s Acting Director.

14 thoughts on “Taking Wales forward?

  1. i share your concern about where Wales will be in 2021, because of alarm at where Wales is now. Wales is on life-support, needing £15bn a year from London just to run our country of Wales. Labour is operating on the theory that what Wales needs is for Labour to win in London, after which the £15bn pa will be safe and we can all carry on as now. No self-respecting Welsh person can be happy with this. I want proposals whereby Wales takes control of taxes and reduces/or raises enough to plug the £15bn pa gap. A Country with unity of purpose, confidence and drive could get Wales out of our half-dead state and solve this enormous problem. Think Germany in the 15-20 years after WW2. Solve this and we solve so many social and other problems as well. We need two things
    1. The right set of economic ideas: Cardiff University Economists, other economists, we need you! The political parties are nowhere near a solution for our anaemic economy and £15bn public deficit.
    2. As Germany found after 1945, your political framework must be right. Our unwritten mish-mash has not delivered. Sorry, Wales, but you are going to have to get yourselves a written constitution whereby Wales controls everything except defence, the £ and the Queen. Yes, the solution offered since before WW1. Don’t worry about London, they will be glad we are growing up at last. But remember – history suggests we will not solve our economic problem unless we reboot and re-energise with a new agreed and written Welsh Constitution.

  2. The problem with devolution from its inception was that Welsh Labour had no real idea what they wanted to do with it. Those who desire a more radical settlement need to explain how precisely it will lead to better policies, how the sort of politicians who would be elected, the sort who are elected now and who have performed so miserably with limited powers, would suddenly be transformed into visionaries if given much greater powers. The more likely scenario is the one mentioned in the Gospels – that those who cannot be trusted with little should not be trusted with more.

    The irony is that the only interesting ideas for better policies come from the right of the political spectrum, from people who opposed devolution and who are never going to stand for the Assembly, and would not be elected if they did. An autonomous Wales might actually work if it adopted a ten-year strategy of broadening the tax base through low taxes, deregulation, free trade, and a generally friendly business environment, leading to better public services. However, that is simply not going to happen. Indeed, we are more likely to get the direct opposite.

  3. ‘Taking Wales Forward’ does not deserv a failing grade. It’s a roadmap, not a Rough Guide for the next five years. Easily to read as well, which makes a refreshing change from turgid consutation documents brimming with jargon and bureaucratese.

    There is spin, granted, but that’s par for the course for a document like this. International readers in the business sector will recognize the spin, but be more interested in hard content, such as proposals for education, skills and connectivity, and intrigued perhaps by a proposed Welsh Development Bank and a National Infrastructure Commission.

    Could the government have done better in terms of initiatives? Probably yes, but the uncertainty of the times is fueled by continued austerity, the Brexit vote, and lingering ambiguities in the devolution package.

    Read ‘Taking Wales Forward’ as a post-Brexit prospectus to invest in Wales, which is perhaps the intent, then you will get the message. It’s also an invitation to organizations in Wales, particularly in the third sector, to become more involved in the governance of the country.

  4. Jonathan Edwards
    A good post and I agree with you completely. But regarding the £15bn a year needed from London, it would be interesting to find out :

    1) How much of that £15bn comes from Wales in the first place

    2) How much of that £15bn goes straight back to London (or never actually comes to Wales in the first place) to pay for UK organisations and services that Wales does not need or to support London’s foreign adventures, overseas aid etc. During the Thatcher era 25% of money given to Wales never got here but went straight to the UKs armed services. Wales for a period had the highest level of military expenditure ever. How much of that £15bn is a slight of hand to make it appear Wales is in a worse condition than it actually is and never gets to Wales.

    3) Our national debt. The UK has one of the worst national debts in the world. I am not advocating Welsh independence, I think we are better off as part of the UK. But as an independent country would our national debt be worse or better than it’s pro rata UKs national debt (without paying for the nuclear fleet, an over extended military to punch above our weight etc and cutting out all the money needed to support UK organisations)

    So basically how much money does Wales raise to support itself, how much money would it need to support itself (trimming off the fat of the UKs expenditure) and would our debt be less or more than it is now as part of the UK

  5. PH
    You ask all the right questions. The answers are all in “Government Expenditure and Revenue Wales (GERW) 2016” published by the Welsh Governance Centre. I went to the launch of this in Cardiff University. They told us all the facts, and were impressive. My blood ran cold at how bad the situation is, and how much we in Wales close our eyes to the terrible picture painted.
    “Those who cannot be trusted with little should not be trusted with more”. Yes, this is the English/Unionist position which has imprinted itself on the minds of so many Welsh, a conquered people. But think about it. You would not apply this to bringing up children, would you? I have 4. When they could be trusted with little, I did my best to expand their knowledge, their world. Most of all I tried to expand their self-confidence. Now these same people have grown in strength and confidence and can of course be trusted with more!
    What you say is self-fulfilling and negative when applied to Wales. We are bigger than many countries in the UN and bigger than half the US States. Of course we can run our own health, education, police, courts, criminal and family law and a decent revival of the WDA. Fishing, farming, broadcasting, roads, railways, alcohol licensing and a Welsh Consolidated Fund, National Bank, reserve Armed Forces (National Guard) committed to NATO etc etc. We are twice the size of independent Estonia, for heaven’s sake. Start building now.

  6. Perhaps the document is like most ‘business plans’.
    Businesses should have 4 sets of Business Plan: 1) Back of envelope, 2) one for the evil Bank filled with wildly optimistic projections (and lies) of profitability, 3) one for investors, if they have any, filled with more lies, and 4) one to peruse personally on the darkest nights with the curtains closed and a stiff drink (the real one).
    Messrs. Edwards and Price should perhaps be using their spies in the Welsh Government to try and find number 4 plan – the Estonian Conspiracy?

  7. Jonathan, there is no reason in theory why Wales could not be autonomous or even fully independent. In practice, however, we lack a properly developed civic culture, business class, and political leadership. You are also right to point out that we lack self-confidence as a nation. The Assembly was supposed to help us develop these things. It has failed to do so. There is absolutely no reason to expect that it would do better in future with more powers. After all, it would still have the same sort of people running it.

    In any case, it should be noted that self-confidence without substance is overconfidence and potentially dangerous. Using your fatherhood analogy – even if it is not entirely suitable to speak of a whole nation as children – you are right to challenge your children and give them room to make mistakes, but you would surely not buy them all Harley-Davidsons before they had mastered balance and basic road skills on bicycles.

  8. @ Jonathon Edwards. A conquered people?. When and by whom??.Like most anglo welsh people in south east my ancestors travelled from Somerset/welsh borders to work in the coal mining industry in last 200 years. If you think the ‘battles’ nearly a 1000 years ago are playing a part in the welsh ‘psyche’ you are mistaken,except for you and others who look back to a non existant time. I can assure you its not the ENGLISH who are holding back the development of a welsh NATION but ourselves who can see where we are in relation to Assembly/WAG and quite frankly do not wish to go further,and in some cases have concluded ATWAP will grow and grow as UKIP did in the UK.

  9. Wales has been relatively poor since 1921. Half a million people left Wales in the 1920s and 1930s because the economy here coud not support them. We had some prosperity in the 1960s but relative decline continued and accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s. (The centralisers’ good old days|) Since devolution there has not been any material further decline in relative GDP per head but it has not improved. We are stuck at 70-odd per cent of UK average GDP per head. There are now signs of revival in the North-East and in the South around the M4 But the valleys, West Wales and Ynys Mon continue to sink. We need a national conversation about the way ahead with the options and their cost being debated across parties and with the public. Some tough decisions need to be made, like closing hospitals and increasing the budget for primary and technical education. This can’t happen when we get spin rather than hard talk. The present generation of leaders won’t break the bad habits of obfuscation and propaganda. Won’t the new, younger AMs show some leadership and start talking about the real issues and the real choices?

  10. Jonathan Edwards

    Thank you for the information, Government Expenditure and Revenue Wales. This shows the major impact of the 2008 recession, on Wales and the rest of the UK, and the slow and painful recovery from 2008 by Wales and the UK and how external events beyond our control can clobber the UK. However the document compares Wales with the UK, which is okay, but for me ignores the London impact. Economically London continuously powers ahead of the rest of the UK, leaving the other regions of the UK struggling and falling further behind, economically and educationally (London schools outperform the rest of England). For comparison London should be considered a separate country from England and a comparison with the English regions (excluding London), Scotland and Northern Ireland would be useful

  11. So Bell Whether, judging by your pen-name, you like a joke! The real plan for Wales should be the result of spying on/for a conspiracy? This apparently great plan is made to sound very secretive and improbable. But it is really all very funny because it is “Estonian”! Ho, Ho!
    Let me assure you Estonia is no kind of joke. Distinctive people, own language. Dreadful neighbours. No, not Nazi Germany (which invaded) but USSR, which also invaded and left the population 40% Russian. Two invasions in one war, devastation. Not content with facing down the 40% of Russians, most of whom came round, they insisted on independence and joined NATO contributing forces under their own flag. They talk face to face to the US President, not via someone else. Estonians didn’t moan about losing their coal-mines or how much money their dreadful occupiers/neighbours might condescend to pay them to maintain their lifestyle. They invented not only Skype but also Transferwise and are making billions. They make great beer and have Tallin, one of the most attractive Capital cities in Europe. Population 1.3m, less than half ours.
    Whatever you do, don’t laugh at things Estonian. Laugh if you must, and weep tears of shame, about our own abject Wales.

  12. @jonathanedwards I do not denigrate Estonians who are much to be admired as you state. I do enjoy a joke but my perception of Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru is that they are far from being a joke and also very far from resonating with or representing the current population in Wales.
    My pen name, Bell Whether, is supposed to imply that I can tell which way the political wind is blowing – at the moment that political wind is blowing strongly against Welsh Labour and also Plaid Cymru. As a patriotic Welshman, I hope I’m wrong.
    I presume you are calling the current Labour Welsh government ‘abject’ rather than all of us in Wales or as a Nation? Should I also ‘weep tears of shame’ for possibly being in the ‘basket of deplorables’?

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