Wales has a proud tradition at the cutting edge of political change when the economic and social circumstances of the time demand it. However, inertia created by the lack of true challenge and debate within today’s Assembly, and the bureaucratic nature of chamber and committee proceedings, has impacted negatively on the development of entrepreneurship and innovation across the Welsh economy, burdening service provision in the public sector with excessive administration.
These are symptoms of an institution lacking the true confidence, influence and power to direct and lead change in inspiring a nation to fulfil its considerable potential. This limited managerial—rather than strategically empowering—approach to governance in Wales is inadequate in ensuring effective democratic representation of the aspirations, needs and values of our nation in the developing UK context. A context made more complex by June’s EU referendum result, the rise of a strong voice in Scotland, and the general feeling that successive Westminster governments, in their understandable eagerness to secure votes from more populous areas nearby, have tended to neglect the needs of communities further afield. The legitimate ambitions of all people living in Wales are undermined by a system which has become increasingly introspective, unwieldy and compromised by short-term considerations, particularly in relation to its structural relevance to the modern global environment.
The transparency of the democratic process is complicated by unelected appointments to certain functions of public influence in Wales, which raises reservations about the suitability of some steering policy and service delivery. Also, the relentless UK cycle of ‘first past the post’ elections encourages a polarisation of views between parties, emerging typically in parliaments which are compositionally unrepresentative of the whole population. Electoral reform is essential to address this democratic deficit and to improve consultation within politics—promoting responsible governance which is rooted in a more strategically focused agenda.
This point is key as the economic and social challenges facing Wales today contrast considerably with those of the UK generally. It is not enough to continue using the present ungainly legislative arrangements. These challenges require responses devised by those closest to them, who better understand their impact on our urban and rural communities, and are well positioned to build the necessary relationships across government and industry.
To carry Wales forward, the introduction of a federal structure for the UK within the next five years is essential so that our nation can function with strengthened accountability and deliver the creative, lasting and robust solutions necessary to address our weaknesses. Long-term planning on a Wales-wide level is essential to promote sustainability on the one hand and enable regionalisation on the other.
A Welsh government established as part of a federalised UK could, hypothetically, be supported by five regional authorities partially mirroring the composition of regional seats for the present Assembly, constituted by amalgamation of enclosed local government principal areas. These regional authorities would complement present and past initiatives to develop joint working opportunities across local authorities, securing better service provision and economies of scale. Enacting Welsh government policies, these regional bodies would take over the responsibilities of existing local authority partnerships; health boards; police, fire and rescue authorities; as well as consortia for education, social services, transport and trunk roads.
Such a structure would provide:
- Clarity and stability in planning and delivery
- Accountability for achieving shared outcomes in each area
- Improved governance between central government, regional and local partners
- Better efficiency and integration in the convergence of contracted and operational arrangements
- Increased capacity.
The central federal government in London would typically maintain control over defence and international diplomacy, acting within the limits of a defined constitution. It would also hold overall responsibility for promoting equality in sharing baseline investment, particularly redistributing a proportion of the joint prosperity generated through the federal capital to the nations. Greater fiscal devolution naturally presents risks and opportunities. Much depends on the response of an influential Welsh government and an informed public to financial empowerment. Questions remain as to how the current deficit could be supported during transition: through adjustment of the Welsh block grant, and/or borrowing.
Whatever the methodology, Wales must move forward with renewed confidence. Not bearing past burdens, especially baggage of a party political nature, but striving to form a common consensus across politicians to move towards a new constitutional relationship within these isles, giving priority to the important values of ‘care’ and ‘opportunity for all’ which underpin our society.
A consensus that inspires a vision that:
- is strongly committed to being a clear voice for all people of Wales, addressing directly the deprivation and lack of opportunity in some of our communities
- pledges resolutely to reduce bureaucracy across all levels of government and to ensure that public money is spent where it is most needed—in surgeries/hospitals, schools/colleges, police and emergency services
- will work tirelessly to support development and growth across private businesses and key industries, stimulating job prospects
- firmly advocates a sustainable approach to government policy and planning which acknowledges our limited resources and addresses pressures on public services
- passionately believes in electoral reform and accountable governance for Wales, empowering all who live within our nation to build the future with ambition and confidence.
To paraphrase Bernard of Chartres ‘We stand on the shoulders of giants.’ Let us make sure that future generations can say that in relation to our efforts in creating a modern Wales.
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