Roger Evans: Wales could be a land of opportunity for prospective Conservative politicians

25 Sep

Roger Evans is a former barrister and Deputy Mayor of London under Boris Johnson.  A much-in-demand public speaking coach, he has unrivalled experience in candidate coaching and mentoring.

It isn’t just the keen eyed reader of the property sections who should be looking west to Wales. The Principality provides an unrivalled opportunity for Conservative candidates too.

The last 20 years has been turbulent for the Welsh Conservatives. Back in 1997 the party effectively ceased to exist at Westminster, having suffered a complete wipe-out in the polls. Since then, Welsh Conservatism has rebounded with remarkable strength. Keen observers of the last general election will have spotted how the once insurmountable bastion of Welsh Labour has started to crack.

This week has seen yet another Welsh Barometer opinion poll putting the conservatives in strong contention for next year’s Welsh Parliament elections. On this poll and the others before it, the Conservatives are set to make substantial gains across Wales. However, the Welsh Conservatives have so far selected very few candidates – even sitting Welsh Parliament members have yet to be re-adopted.

The Welsh Party review, Building on Success, Strengthening the Welsh Conservative Party, makes it clear that the candidate’s process is going to re-start with a new Welsh Candidates list. CCHQ in London is taking over the process of candidate approval, with a view to making the Welsh Conservatives more diverse and the candidate process more similar to that used for Westminster. With the elections looming, the Covid-paused candidate selection process is set to be re-opened ahead of Christmas.

The review stresses that they are keen to have candidates with a strong Welsh link. For those with such a connection over the border in England, Wales could be a land of opportunity. With no equivalent elections in 2021 save for Scotland and London, it will be a long wait until the next General Election.

Welsh Parliament seats largely follow the boundaries of their Westminster counterparts, and the crown jewels of Welsh opportunities are all still up for grabs, including such Westminster-held seats as Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire to the Vale of Glamorgan. Many of these seats saw a huge rise in the Conservative vote in 2019.  Added to this, there are the six seats the Conservatives took in North Wales at Westminster last year up for grabs too.

The even better news for aspiring candidates is that the Welsh Parliament uses the additional member system, meaning that there are even more opportunities on the top-up list. The polls currently indicate that the Welsh Conservatives will make strong gains here.

As the London Assembly has demonstrated, a career started in regional government is increasingly a pathway to senior ministerial office. The London Assembly has cultivated Ministers including Kemi Badenoch, James Cleverly, and Kit Malthouse. Wales’ Cardiff Bay Parliament boasts far greater powers than the London Assembly has.  Huge swathes of public policy are now dealt with in Cardiff, from health to planning.

Moreover, at their present rate of growth it is only a matter of time before the Conservatives lead a Welsh Government. Could this be the election where we see Paul Davies as Welsh First Minister?  We’ll know by early May next year. One thing is for sure, candidates at this Welsh Parliament election may well go on to serve in a Welsh Government.

If you are interested in discussing your political career, then contact me.

Henry Hill: The challenges involved in reviving the ‘four-nation’ approach to Covid-19

24 Sep

Whereas Brexit didn’t give the Scottish Nationalists the lift-off they were expecting, the Covid-19 pandemic really does appear to be putting the post-1998 constitutional order under even greater strain.

This became apparent over the summer with the breakdown of the Government’s efforts to maintain a ‘four-nation’ response to tackling coronavirus, resulting in a confusing spread of different rules across the United Kingdom and the spectre of internal movement restrictions between the Home Nations.

As a result, the true extent of devolution has become more apparent than ever and this seems to be hardening opinion on both sides. In Scotland, the Scottish Government continues to have a ‘good crisis’ – at least in PR terms – whilst in Wales devoscepticism has arrived as a noteworthy political force.

This week, however, Nicola Sturgeon seems to have changed tack again. The Scotsman reports that she has written to Boris Johnson to request “urgent four-nation talks” about how toughen lockdown. According to the paper:

“The topics highlighted by the First Minister include what further actions might be necessary, what support is required for affected sectors and what arrangements can be put in place to ensure that devolved administrations are not constrained in making what they judge to be essential public health decisions.”

Kenny Farquharson, writing in the Times, describes this approach as “alignment plus”. His explanation for the new approach is that the First Minister recognises that many Scots risk getting quite different information depending on whether, for example, they prefer Scottish or national radio and television stations. With public patience likely to start fraying as we head into another six months of restrictions, the less room for confusion there is the better.

Of course, it would be a little naïve not to look for possible mischief in any SNP overture to the Government, and one can see how this could make things tricky for Johnson. By urging the Prime Minister to adopt tougher restrictions, Sturgeon can once again appear ahead of the game to a solidly pro-lockdown public – which is doing her standing no harm in Scotland – whilst also sharpening the possible split between the Government and Conservative backbenchers, who are growing increasingly restive about how ministers are handling the imposition of economic and social restrictions.

If the Prime Minister does end up leaning into a more restrictive, four-nations approach, residents in England may end up facing some of the more draconian measures which are currently in force elsewhere. For example, Scotland has banned household visits (and Wales restricted them to ‘extended households’), whereas the Government currently still permits these subject to the ‘Rule of Six’ and appropriate social distancing restrictions.

Wales has also used the pandemic to start smuggling in somewhat bizarre public health nannying, such as a new ban on off-licences and supermarkets selling alcohol after 10pm. It will be very interesting to see whether or not that restriction is repealed once the Covid-19 crisis has passed.

Sturgeon also used her letter to call (inevitably) for more powers. The Scotsman says she “also highlighted that devolved administrations’ ability to take action is curtailed by a lack of financial levers to deliver economic support.” This demand is obviously in tension with the Government’s desire, embodied in the UK Internal Market Bill, to defend the coherence of the British common market and the broader constitutional settlement.

Andrew Carter: Devolving responsibilities to our town halls must also mean devolving money

22 Sep

Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, who have published a new report Levelling Up Local Government in England

Last year, the Conservative election manifesto pledged to deliver a system of full English devolution and, as I understand it, the Government is now finalising these plans in a white paper due to be published this autumn.

Reform of England’s complicated local government structures is long overdue. There are currently 349 district, county, unitary, and combined authorities in England, as well as the Greater London Authority, many with overlapping responsibilities and competing interests.

Nottingham, for example, has nine separate councils, all with responsibilities for local planning and economic development in their part of the city. The seven district councils have responsibility for new housing, but then the two county councils are charged with delivering the transport infrastructure that new homes need. This bureaucratic arrangement makes joined-up long-term strategic decision making about Nottingham’s future much more difficult than it needs to be.

Additionally, many smaller district councils have neither the capacity nor the political will to deliver the large-scale housing and infrastructure projects needed to level up their areas, and the financial challenges of maintaining this patchwork system are increasing every year.

But the problems in English local government are about more than just function and finance. There is also a democratic deficit, with little public awareness or understanding of councils’ roles. Back in 2012, just eight per cent of people could name their local council leader, and I doubt this figure has improved much since then.

And a system in which a council leader is also a local ward councillor directly answerable to only to a tiny electorate makes it difficult for them to balance their voters’ priorities with their duty to the wider area. This means that hyper-local issues can crowd out the long-term planning and investment that an area needs.

The current system is the product of decades of political compromise and piecemeal reform, but it’s having a damaging effect on the places that the Prime Minister has promised to level up, many of which have been hit harder economically by the Covid-19 pandemic than more affluent areas. We can’t keep tinkering around the edges – only wholescale reform will work now.

First, England’s existing 349 councils should be reduced down to 69 new, larger unitary and combined authorities that mirror as much as possible the economic areas in which people live and work. This would make joined-up strategic decision-making far easier.

When I make this argument, people often stress the importance of ensuring that historic or cultural boundaries are reflected in local government. I have two points to make on this: First, civic identity is not determined by local authority boundaries; it is possible to celebrate civic identity while having council boundaries that reflect the area over which people live and work.  And second, as our proposals show, it is possible to create a new system that aligns political and economic geography whilst respecting existing historic county boundaries.

Second, the leader-and-cabinet model for local government should be scrapped and the 69 new authorities should be headed by a directly-elected political figure. In cities and large towns they should be called a mayor, in rural areas they could have a more appropriate name. But whatever they are called they should be given the mandate, powers, and resources to improve the lives of people living and in working in them.

Responsibility for key areas of the levelling up agenda such as housing delivery, infrastructure, management of public transport, and adult education provision should all be moved out of Whitehall and put in the hands of the new leaders and their authorities.  The relevant government departments – Business, Transport, Education – could then be shrunk to reflect their smaller roles and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government could be transformed into an England Office similar to the Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland Offices and, like in the devolved nations, be given responsibility for managing England’s devolution deals.

This simpler system, with a directly elected political leader, will begin to address the lack of public engagement in local politics. Though less than one in ten people nationally can name their council leader, in the Tees Valley, 40 per cent of people know the directly elected Conservative mayor, Ben Houchan, and they can name a policy achievement of his.

But it would be disingenuous to restructure local government and give it extra powers and responsibilities, without also providing it with the funding it needs to make good on these extra responsibilities. Devolving control over how local business rates, council tax, and charges are raised and spent, and giving greater discretion to councils on how they manage their budgets would give them the freedom and incentives they need to drive forward improvements in their areas – and would be a welcome relief after a decade of local government austerity.

Opponents of what I’m proposing will tell you that, despite its flaws, the current system works; and perhaps on a purely functional day-to-day level it does. But we should be asking ourselves what we want from local government in the future, particularly in light of the Covid-19 crisis.  Should it just be emptying bins and collecting library fines? Or should it be applying its deep understanding of England’s cities, towns, and counties to deliver the levelling up agenda? I would argue it’s the latter, and I hope that ministers writing the devolution white paper, agree with me.

John Fuller: This pandemic has shown that bigger local government does not mean better local government

14 Sep

Cllr John Fuller OBE is the Leader of South Norfolk District Council and the Chairman of the District Councils’ Network

The opportunity to take back control drove millions to the ballot box in June 2016. The country voted to take back greater powers to shape their own destiny, and against remote elite and expensive bureaucracies that take decisions to constrain our lives in ways that are hard to influence.

It doesn’t just apply to Europe: English local government is already the largest and most remote in the western world, with voters already the least well represented.

Yet the lessons of the pandemic have proved again what is fact: bigger local government is not better local government. While national command and control sometimes stumbled, our local district councils ensured that individuals, families, and businesses could keep calm and carry on.

In streets up and down our country, it was the local district council that ensured every fridge was filled, every bin collected, every evicted sofa-surfer had a roof placed over their head, and every small business had the financial help and regulatory forbearance to adapt and pivot towards a new normal.

And we were able to do this because we have the local connection, the local accountability, and the local knowledge, to customise our approach, one family at a time, one street at a time, and one place at a time.

Your local district and smaller unitary councils represent our market towns, our cathedral cities, coastal communities, new towns, and the countryside, across 60 per cent of England. Our agility at street level allowed national government to focus on the big issues whilst safe in the knowledge that the final mile was cared for.

But what’s this?

In the last few weeks there is a small group of people clamouring to put all of this at risk. Astonishingly, Conservative county councils are making the case for turning their backs on learning the lessons on what worked best in the depths of our Covid despair.  They are proposing to dismantle the final mile that delivers bespoke solutions for residents in every corner of our country.

They seek to recast local government into just two dozen county-based unitary councils in a reckless race to the bottom on cheapness. It is nothing less than putting their own organisations’ survival ahead of the best interests of residents and business – and will hamper our ability to grow the national economy, one local economy at a time.

Replacing nearly 200 predominantly Conservative authorities with just 25 county unitaries where control is much more finely balanced would be a suicide mission that would put see our associations and councillor base emasculated and take the voters even further away from those who represent us.

In so doing it, would destroy the local campaigning base of the Conservative Party and leave us at a structural disadvantage against Labour’s metropolitan heartlands who would remain unmolested.

The county councils’ plans would condemn Conservative local government to permanent opposition in the Local Government Association and all the other representative bodies that control nearly a third of public expenditure.

And with 33 councils in London and just 25 in the rest of shire England, what does that say about levelling up? It is already more difficult to get Conservatives elected on the bottom rung of our democracy. In the typical Labour-run London Borough or city-based metropolitan council, it takes about 3,000 electors for a Labour candidate to win. In our county councils, in Kent, Essex and Hampshire that number is 15,000. Labour enjoys a five-times electoral advantage over us. We should be challenging this arithmetic, not reinforcing it.

But it’s worse than that. Labour councils tend to be smaller: 50-60 seats, whereas Conservative counties often comprise 80 councillors or more. So it’s also easier for those councillors of other parties to become council leaders and thus play a leading role in national policy formation.

In the mid-2000s, our leader in local government, Sandy Bruce Lockhart, and the Leader of Kent County Council, cautioned us against conniving with Labour to decimate the Party in the Shires. How ironic that we now have Conservative collaborators pushing something that even Hazel Blears as Labour’s Secretary of State dared not deliver.

Now is the time for us to focus on recovery not reorganisation. Our government’s Devolution and Recovery White Paper must recognise that a council isn’t just a transactional entity. A council has the responsibility to exceed the aspirations of residents and business, recognising and celebrating the differences in our county, not centralising with an identikit approach.

We should be devolving down even more to those organisations like our district and small unitary councils who shone when the Covid chips were down; not using it as an excuse to centralise into distant mega-bureaucracies with a ‘Computer Says No’ attitude, that are so removed from street level that they are unable to connect with the towns and cities across their sprawling landscapes.

Making an argument for cheapness is a dismal one that cannot inspire anyone. The Conservative Party stands for aspiration and efficient services that they can be shaped locally, not cheap ones they can’t. We stand against centralisation rather than devolution. We stand for shaping shared prosperity at street level to build homes, infrastructure funding, and employment to deliver true levelling up for all.

So let’s have a pattern of local government that looks forward to the needs of 2066 rather than being bogged down by boundaries laid down in 1066.

That’s not just a statement of common sense. It’s also an aspirational one which allows the Conservative Party the best chance to shape the future in every corner of our land. Let’s celebrate our historical county boundaries, but not get tripped up by them.

Switching to more unitary authorities and directly elected mayors must be achieved by consent

8 Sep

“More elected mayors and fewer councils to break Labour’s red wall strongholds,” declared the Sunday Times over the weekend. It is already Government policy to encourage more areas to become unitary authorities and for more directly elected mayors to be installed. But this report suggests that a White Paper on devolution, to be published next month, will give these changes more impetus. It says:

Dozens more elected mayors and the abolition of many councils are being planned under a shake-up of local government due to be unveiled next month.

“Ministers want to devolve more power to areas that agree to new elected mayors, who they argue are more accountable and better at boosting local economies. Conservatives have also proved more successful in winning mayoralties in “red wall” areas than they have in winning Labour-controlled councils. However, a fight looms over plans to abolish significant numbers of district councils, many of them Tory-controlled, as part of plans for a slimmed-down local government system.

“Downing Street denied that they wanted to abolish two thirds of authorities by replacing district councils with unitary authorities, and insisted change would happen only with local consent. However, ministers do want to move towards more single-tier council areas, which the County Councils Network estimates would save £3 billion a year.

“District councils oppose the move, saying it would create unwieldy mega-authorities responsible for more than a million people each, far larger than local government units in other countries. A cap of about 600,000 people in any unitary authority is being considered as one way of avoiding this.”

Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayor of Tees Valley, “is seen as the prototype for winning Tory control of local government in the north and Midlands.”

It will be interesting to see what the devolution White Paper comes up with. But if the principle is maintained of local consent, it is hard to see how the change could be as dramatic as the tone of the Sunday Times piece suggests.

A quote from a Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesman in the Daily Telegraph yesterday sought to offer calm:

“We want to devolve and decentralise to give more power to local communities, providing opportunities for all areas to enjoy devolution.

“But there will be no blanket abolishment of district councils and no top-down restructuring of local government. The devolution White Paper, which will be published this autumn, will set out our detailed plans and we continue to work closely with local areas to establish solutions to local government reform.”

The Telegraph report added some welcome news:

“Local communities could also seek to scrap modern municipal area names to give people a better sense of the history of where they live under the plans.

Another Government insider said: “We want to extend devolution to the whole country so that all areas benefit from this. It should not just be the big urban areas, it should be shires too, working closely with local areas to establish solutions to local government reform.”

Campaigners who have been urging the Government to reinstate historic county names welcomed the news. Pam Moorhouse, the British Counties campaign, said: “Traditional county names were taken off us by Edward Heath in 1974 so it is about time they came back because millions want them.”

Under the changes, west Midlands could revert to Warwickshire, Cumbria could be replaced by Cumberland and Westmorland while Merseyside could be scrapped and replaced by a larger Lancashire.”

Last year, James Brokenshire, when he was Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, said:

“Locally-led changes to the structure of local government, whether in the form of unitarisation or district mergers, can – with local support – be an appropriate means of ensuring more sustainable local government and local service delivery, enhanced local accountability, and empowered local communities. This statement today continues the Government’s commitment to supporting those councils that wish to combine, to serve their communities better and will consider unitarisation and mergers between councils when locally requested. However, I recognise that unitarisation may not be appropriate everywhere. I also recognise that it is essential that any local government restructuring should be on the basis of locally led proposals and should not involve top-down Whitehall solutions being imposed on areas. The Government does not support top-down unitary restructuring. This has been the Government’s consistent approach since 2010.”

I suspect that approach will continue. Not least because a significant shift towards unitary authorities is already happening and has been taking place for a number of years.

The Conservative Manifesto last year merely stated:

“We remain committed to devolving power to people and places across the UK. Our ambition is for full devolution across England, building on the successful devolution of powers to city region mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners and others, so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny. We will publish an English Devolution White Paper setting out our plans next year.”

It would be a bit of stretch to take that as a mandate for forced abolition of all the district councils.

There is a strong case for unitary status – with respect to both democracy and efficiency – in terms of ending duplication. The waste and confusion of residents of a town having two sets of councillors, a town hall and a county hall, two local authority chief executives on six-figure salaries… For example, it is not good for accountability that if the county council puts up the Council Tax, but the district council is blamed – because the bills are sent out at district level.

More contentious is the “economies of scale” argument. The logic of this is that the bigger the resulting unitary authority, the better. Ken Livingstone proposed replacing the 32 London boroughs with five “sub-regional partnerships” that would appear by dividing the map of London into slices of cake. That was not inspiring for local identity. But nor is it necessary for efficiency. Councils have alternatives to running everything themselves – such as sharing services or contracting them out to private companies. Flexibility is an example. The tri-borough arrangements for Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster delivered great savings. But offering big contracts can also limit competition by making it harder for smaller firms to tender – I have written for this site about this being a difficulty in terms of school transport for disabled children.

It may make sense for a compromise where, rather than a county council swallowing up all the district councils, we have two or three unitary councils across a district.

Directly elected mayors come in two types. There are the Metro Mayors who run “combined authorities” as an extra layer on top of other local authorities. Examples include Andy Street in the West Midlands and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. They have powers for regeneration and integrated transport. They will naturally lobby for more power and larger budgets. They are a legacy from the Labour Government’s Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 and are almost inevitably a corporatist force seeking greater state intervention.

Then there is the situation where a local authority replaces a council leader with a directly elected Mayor. Examples of where this has happened include Bristol, Middlesbrough, Leicester, and Watford. It has been implemented in several London boroughs – most unhappily in Tower Hamlets. It does provide an opportunity to shake up complacent, monolithic councils – not least by giving a chance for independents with a strong background in business or community service. Unlike the Metro Mayors, these local authority mayors are created (and could be abolished) via a referendum. Why not allow referendums to get rid of the Metro Mayors?

Eric Pickles, was a fearless radical as Communities and Local Government Secretary. Yet before entering Government he told this site:

“I’ll have a pearl-handled revolver waiting in my drawer for the first civil servant who suggests another local government reorganisation.”

Those of us who would like to see more unitary councils and directly-elected Mayors have to persuade others in our communities. However frustrating it might be for those in Downing Street, a different approach would be unlikely to be politically acceptable. Nor would it be justified.

Andrew Potts: After twenty years, it’s time Welsh devolution grew up

25 Aug

Dr Andrew Potts is a Conservative Party activist from Neath. He works in local government, specialising in developing social care policy and strategy.

It is more than twenty years since Ron Davies declared that it was a very good morning in Wales, which must count as the longest false dawn in history.

The result came out of Tony Blair’s manifesto commitment to holding a referendum on the creation of a Welsh Assembly. It claims that:

“Devolution is about harnessing the power of community – the diverse community that is the United Kingdom, and the national communities that through devolution can take their futures in their own hands.”

The point here was to build a better future for Wales and, by extension, the United Kingdom. But power has been shackled in Cardiff Bay rather than harnessed by it. Rhodri Morgan’s ‘Clear Red Water’ speech in 2002 showed that Wales would remain ‘old’ Labour under his leadership.

This has been the major flaw in devolution ever since. The Welsh Labour administration simply opposes whichever party leads the British Government. It will never see eye to eye with the Conservatives, but if it distanced itself from Blair there is no reason to believe it wouldn’t do the same with any government led by Sir Keir Starmer – after all, he will be viewed as the man who deposed Jeremy Corbyn.

Principles can be admired even when you disagree with them, but dogma cannot. Until there is a change in the governing party in Wales the country will remain consigned to Dante’s eighth circle of hell, with heads twisted around to face backwards – looking at what was, not at what could be.

The pandemic has highlighted for the first time for many in Wales just how much of what we take for granted is devolved. Health and social care come in for constant criticism, yet the finger of blame is routinely pointed at Westminster not Cardiff (“it’s all down to austerity”).

But the whole UK had to tighten its collective belt. Wales was not singled out and public spending per person is higher in Wales and the other devolved nations, while tax revenue per person is higher in England. The focus should not be on what is spent but how it is spent.

Millions of pounds have been lost by selling land at a fraction of its value, raising £1.9m as farmland compared with around £39m if it had been sold for housing development, which of course is what the buyer did. Over £100m was spent on work on the M4 relief road before the scheme was abandoned.

A recent Freedom of Information request revealed that more than £450,000 was spent last year employing 12 ministerial drivers to drive 12 cars – a whopping 40 per cent increase on the figure for 2016-17 for the same number of cars and drivers. Last year also included 151 trips to transport official documents, without a minister even being in the car. Chauffeured socialism is one thing, but pampered paperwork at taxpayers’ expense beggars belief.

In the meantime Wales remains the lowest-performing nation in the UK for reading, maths, and science according to PISA tests. Lengthening hospital waiting lists, missed A&E targets (before Covid), and a lack of integrated IT systems across NHS Wales are just some of the better known areas where the Welsh Labour Government has failed.

The latest Welsh Political Barometer Poll shows that support for independence is at its highest, standing at around 25 per cent. However, the same poll suggests that a similar proportion would vote to abolish the Senedd. The former figure must please Plaid Cymru, whose raison d’être is an independent Wales, but the latter should give pause for thought. Plaid wants Wales to be independent of England but remain in the EU, despite the majority of the Welsh electorate voting to leave. Who does it claim to represent?

The pro-independence YesCymru campaign admits that Wales remains the poorest of the UK nations whilst arguing that independence would give Wales full control over economic policy, including taxation and borrowing, plus the ability to hold our own politicians to account and “force them to be more ambitious” for Wales’ future.

Politicians are already accountable, and ambition (and aptitude) should not be tied directly to finances. Moreover, the ability to raise taxes on an already poor nation does not promise growth. A strong economy could eventually lead to independence, but not vice versa.

Besides, can we expect Welsh Labour to do anything other than continue to squander public finances and misuse its existing powers? Is it too much to expect children to read, write, and add up at the same level as those living across the border?

What is needed first and foremost is a functioning government that effectively manages those areas over which it already has powers. If it is currently viewed as purely the means of distributing money received via Westminster, then it should at least demonstrate that it is capable of doing so effectively. Now in its early twenties, it is time that Welsh devolution matured.

Since its inception, the Senedd and its previous incarnations has seen overall voter turnout average around 43 per cent, compared with 53 per cent for the Scottish Parliament and 65 per cent for UK elections over a similar period. If Wales indeed has strong feelings about how it is run, then why the apparent apathy? Wales is not ready for independence – it is waiting to be governed.

The Welsh Conservatives proposal for an Office for Government Resilience and Efficiency (OGRE) is a step towards better oversight of devolved areas and would seek to eliminate waste and promote best practice. If a policy has been shown to work elsewhere it should not automatically be ignored because it wasn’t thought up in Cardiff Bay first.

Paul Davies has called for a devolution revolution in Wales. Boris Johnson is intent on levelling up the nations of the UK. Welsh Labour would prefer to shrug its collective shoulders.

Wales needs momentum not inertia – to be outward looking and show true ambition. The Welsh Conservatives should be given the mandate to Make Devolution Work.

Adrian Mason: Welsh disillusionment with devolution gives the Conservatives an opportunity

19 Aug

Adrian Mason is the Deputy Chairman (Political) of the North Wales Conservatives.

Imagine forming a new single-issue political party. In the first election, you field no constituency candidates and you do not produce any election material to promote your cause. Would it surprise you to then receive a quarter of the votes in some regions in the first election you enter? Of course, it would, but that is exactly what happened in North Wales during the Assembly Campaign in 2016. The Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party did just that, picking up 44,286 votes overall, not that far behind the Liberal Democrats! Incredible, well yes, but not if you put matters in perspective. Devolution in Wales has never been as popular a concept as in Scotland. In fact, anecdotal evidence from the doorsteps in the 2019 General Election campaign showed that even after 20 years of devolved Welsh Government, many people were not aware that the Welsh Assembly (now grandly renamed ‘Parliament’) is responsible for health, education, and other important areas affecting daily life.

Then along came Covid 19 and everything should now have changed.

The pandemic has opened the eyes of many here in Wales with regard to devolution and the powers conferred upon the Welsh Labour Government to diverge from Westminster. Over recent months the public has seen Wales taking a different path out of lockdown, often – seemingly deliberately – lagging behind England. It has left people feeling bewildered. Whilst many people in Wales looked to the Prime Minister’s guidance, it has come as a wake-up call to learn that even though many voted Conservative in the General Election – on a significantly larger turnout than at any Assembly election – and we have a Conservative UK Government with 14 Welsh Conservative MPs; vital decisions affecting our everyday lives now reside in Cardiff with a Labour administration.

The public indifference to the Welsh Parliament shown by many just last December has now hopefully evaporated. It should be crystal clear that devolution in Wales has made a seismic difference to how we are governed. This then presents an opportunity for the Conservative Party in Wales at next year’s Welsh Parliament elections.

In votes gone by, many Welsh electors have simply blamed Westminster for the ills of the Welsh NHS, where, in 2018, 3.4 per cent of patients waited more than 12 hours in A&E compared to 1.3 per cent in England, despite receiving more per head funding. Then we have the bottom of the class education system. Recent PISA statistics published in December 2019 show Wales still lags behind the other UK nations in maths, literacy, and science. These statistics provide an open goal for the Conservative Party. Welsh Labour have been content to allow the electorate to believe that their own failings were the failings of the Conservatives, and even in the 2019 General Election campaign some of their candidates were being disingenuous about this.

It is not just health and education that the Welsh Labour Government controls in Wales. They also have the power to vary the basic rate of income tax, given to them under provisions of the Wales Act 2017, wrong-headedly amending the Wales Act 2014 which provided that a referendum was required before tax varying powers could be granted. Sadly, this amendment to the devolution settlement, denying the people of Wales a vote on such an important issue, was enacted by a Conservative Government.

So, what do you get if you give a socialist government tax-raising powers? You get higher taxes, and this is exactly what will happen here in Wales. Taxpayers will be paying a premium to sustain Welsh Labour’s profligate spending and inferior public services. It will hold little value either for many parts of Wales as Labour looks to satisfy its core voters in the south-east.

The Conservative Party in Wales not only has to overcome voter apathy, it needs to make a positive case for devolution. The latter may be the solution to the former, but unfortunately, neither objective is in sight. A recent Survation poll carried out by the Centre for Welsh Studies saw the Conservatives in Wales trailing Labour by 14 per cent. In order to win power, the Conservatives need to provide a clear vision of how much better life would be in Wales under a Conservative Government.

It is not just a case of attacking Labour’s atrocious record over the last 20 years. The Party needs to set out exactly why life will be improved under a Conservative administration. You would expect such things as rolling back the State, a low tax, business-minded environment, encouraging international companies to set up base here. We need policies that promote excellence in health and education and investment in our agricultural sector, to promote our tourist industry and taking advantage of the fantastic opportunities that await us outside the EU. We need to set out a clear blue divide between the Wales of today and the Wales of tomorrow.

Only by painting an optimistic picture will the Conservative Party be able to win over the voters of Wales. Even those who voted Conservative in the General Election are more hesitant to vote for the Conservatives in Welsh Parliament elections. People though are genuinely tired of Welsh Labour and are looking for an alternative. They won’t find it with the nationalist Plaid Cymru with its narrow view of the world and they will not find it with a Party wishing to abolish the Welsh Parliament, which, like it or not, it is here to stay. The Conservatives are the only realistic alternative. However, unless something changes dramatically and quickly, we are likely to see another five years of Labour. This would be a tragedy for Wales.

The Conservative Party in Wales needs to analyse why so many people voted to abolish the Assembly last time around. A vote to abolish is a damning rejection of the status quo. These voters have been alienated and see the whole devolution project as not fit for purpose. The Conservatives need to promote policies that will give these people back hope that devolution, in sensible hands, can be a force of good. That is now the challenge for our Party in Wales. Failure to do so will see more people deserting the Conservative cause in Wales and either abstaining in next year’s election or lending further support to the abolitionists.

Laura Anne Jones: Wales’ 20 year devolution process must be parked

14 Aug

Laura Anne Jones is a Member of the Welsh Parliament for South Wales East

Eisenhower famously warned of the dangers of the extremes in an argument on both left and right. His comments related to social security and employment protections for workers rather than the constitutional intricacies of Welsh devolution, but it remains a point well made about the appeal of movements on the political fringes in difficult times.

We now know officially that we are in a recession of unprecedented severity. If we thought the 2008 crash cast a long shadow in terms of economic repair and austerity, the economic recovery from Covid-19 is on another level. Past global recessions have resulted in a rise in popularism on both the left and right, seeking to take advantage of a crisis, comparing luscious green grass to the malaise of the status quo.

The latest Welsh Barometer Poll registered a rise in support for the abolition of the Assembly by five per cent to 22 per cent and a rise of two per cent in support for independence to 16 per cent – still one of the least popular options behind an enhanced Senedd (20 per cent) and the most popular outcome, the status quo at 24 per cent.

The Coronavirus pandemic has put relations between the UK and devolved governments under strain, but also exposed the desire of devolved administrations to assert their authority by taking a different approach or timeline. Even when the devolved administrations make the same decisions, they have to be given a different name. Just like England, Wales has bubbles, but they can’t be called bubbles and instead are known as extended households.

The scale of the resulting economic devastation from Coronavirus remains unclear, but polls are already detecting movement towards the extremes in the constitutional argument – abolition and independence.

I don’t believe either option will ever win the support of a majority of the electorate. In fact, polling consistently demonstrates strong support for devolution but that support is not blind or unquestioning. While there have been positive changes delivered in the past 20 years such as presumed consent, the carrier bag levy, free bus passes and the 50:50 gender balance in 2003 in which I was proud to play a part.

However, in 20 years, the public would rightly expect more. Welsh Government Ministers have accepted that they failed to deliver what the public really want which is a more dynamic and prosperous economy and higher standards in public services. Successive ministers have conceded they ‘took their eye off the ball’ on education for at least the first decade and 20 years into devolution admitted they ‘don’t really know what they’re doing on the economy’.

While these are Labour’s failings and not those of the institution, it does make it harder to make the case to maintain the current devolution settlement. The institution is still young and must continually prove its relevance and the difference it can make to people’s lives. Paul Davies put it very succinctly in his speech to the Welsh Conservative Party conference earlier this year:

“We have the powers, we have the funding, it’s time to stop marking the pitch and actually start playing the game.”

While I make the case for the preservation of devolution in Wales, it’s a fact that I voted No in the referendum on further powers in 2011. I hadn’t been heavily involved in the referendum – one of the very few public ballots that I hadn’t put my heart into in the last 25 years. My firstborn was just turning one, but more than that the referendum just didn’t inspire me. The referendum was an obscure choice between two different means of primary law-making for the National Assembly, with both outcomes, Yes and No, resulting in more powers being devolved to Cardiff Bay. It was the ultimate establishment stitch-up. A far more meaningful referendum would have been on whether the Assembly gained tax-varying powers – it was a sufficiently important distinction for Scotland to have a referendum question on it. Except the establishment knew such a referendum would not be won, so instead the people of Wales were given an obscure question with two choices, which eventually would have the same outcome – more powers for the Assembly.

Now, albeit without a mandate from the people, the Welsh Parliament does have quite significant tax-varying powers. These are additional levers that can be used to make the Welsh economy more competitive and dynamic – as long as they’re pulled the right way. With primary law-making powers across a wide range of policy areas and key taxation levers, there’s now very little scope to blame Westminster governments for not giving the Welsh Government enough money. The levers and the accountability lie here. There are no more excuses for a failure to deliver.

Last month saw Plaid Cymru initiate the first-ever debate in the Senedd about Welsh independence, although it feels like Welsh politics has debated little other than the constitution in the last 20 years. While I was returned to the Senedd in the most tragic of circumstances, I want to make a contribution in policy areas that are important to the people I represent – the NHS, schools, the environment, agriculture and poverty – and I’m afraid the constitution ranks pretty lowly. I hope the current devolution settlement can bed in over the next five years so Senedd Members can focus on how to use those powers to improve the economy and public services rather than demanding more. I don’t want to see any more powers devolved to Cardiff Bay in the next few years, not because of any opposition to devolution, but because devolution needs to mature and make better use of the considerable tools at its disposal. We need to end our obsession with constitutional tinkering and stop using the constitution as an excuse for failure and mediocrity.

I know Ron Davies described devolution as a process not an event, but it’s a process which sometimes feels never-ending and which consumes so much time and energy, there’s little left for the things that really matter, like schools, hospitals and the economy.

There is a very real risk that the third decade of devolution could be consumed by more constitutional debates and detract attention away from the monumental task of making Wales a wealthier nation – something the first two decades of devolution have completely failed to achieve.

I passionately want to see that healthier, wealthier and more aspirational nation. I believe we can only achieve those goals with change – and Wales desperately needs radical change. A Welsh Conservative Government led by Paul Davies could deliver that change – a revolution in devolution, transforming government in Wales as opposed to five more years of the same. But whoever is in power from 2021, the opportunities for real change in our society can only be secured if depart from the constant constitutional tinkering. Now is not the time to lurch in the direction of either extreme, be it independence or abolition. Now is the time to steady the ship and embark on more ambitious destinations. Because that’s our best chance at securing change.

Archie Hill: Strong devolution must mean giving more counties unitary status

6 Aug

Archie Hill is a researcher at Henham Strategy. He also works in the research team at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Just over a year ago, during his very first week as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson made a speech in Manchester, warming to a familiar theme:

“We are going to give greater powers to council leaders and to communities. We are going to give more communities a greater say over changes to transport, housing, public services, and infrastructure that will benefit their areas and drive local growth.”

Familiar, in the sense that every recent government has promised greater devolution of powers at a local level. A new wave of decentralisation is always on the horizon.

But this Prime Minister’s commitment to devolution rings true. Decentralisation may be a common refrain, but it is a long time since it has assumed so central a role in a government’s platform: the ‘levelling up’ agenda upon which the Conservatives fought and won so handsomely is rooted in local devolution. Not for nothing did the Prime Minister describe himself, grappling when pressed for a definable ideology, as “basically a Brexity Hezza.” As well as a flamboyant hairstyle, he shares with Lord Heseltine a belief that reforming local government, and setting out more coherent efficient structures which work properly, can help unleash growth around the country.

It was Heseltine, after all, whose report No Stone Unturned demonstrated the disjointed state of local government in England, with different tiers of councils operating at different levels and overlapping responsibilities; as wasteful as it is confusing. At a local level, this confusion reaches absurdity: just getting a pothole or a sign fixed can involve negotiating county, district, and parish councils, each with their own separate remit. Small wonder, then, that we found that fewer than one in five of those surveyed in our polling thought it was easy to understand who was responsible for what, across local government. This confusion leads very quickly to apathy.

In recent months, as part of a team at Henham Strategy, I have been working on a report, commissioned by the County Councils Network and published this week, setting out where the current system is failing and how powers can be devolved more effectively at a local level.

A more effective – and accountable – means of local decision-making is vital. Fortunately, the government has an opportunity to make lasting changes, in the form of the upcoming, much-trumpeted Devolution White Paper from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, ours was the most centralised state in the western world. As the Centre for Policy Studies found in their report A Rising Tide, locally determined taxes make up just 1.7 per cent of GDP in the UK, compared to 15.9 per cent in Sweden, or 10.9 per cent in Germany. But during the current crisis, the government has felt compelled to take further control of large segments of the economy and manage it from the commanding heights of Whitehall. This ignores the real lesson of Covid, which is that it is at the local level where the most effective response has occurred.

County authorities have made some of largest contributions to the national effort, ranging from shielding the vulnerable and protecting the NHS, putting in place infection control plans for care homes, sourcing hundreds of thousands of pieces of PPE, and helping secure local businesses’ futures. When previous governments talked about local devolution, too often what they had in mind was the creation of new mayoral bodies covering a large urban area, in London, Greater Manchester, or the West Midlands. This focus on metropolitan areas has been to the cost of counties and those who live in them.

Half of our population is located in England’s counties; half of our overall economic output is created there too. They already provide accountable local leadership – in the form of elected councillors – that is readily recognisable by people who live there. Indeed, our commissioned polling found that only nine per cent of those surveyed thought that mayors should have more powers than county council leaders.

A number of county councils have become unitary authorities, and many other councils we spoke to are keen to follow suit. The opportunities of a single, more streamlined body that can speak with a unified voice for the whole county are enormous, both in terms of cost savings and more effective decision-making at scale. Where district councils too often act as a brake on development and strategic planning, unitary authorities provide a more responsive, joined-up form of local leadership across a larger population. Cornwall Council demonstrates this, bringing together representatives from health, business, transport, and local town/parish councils all round one table: the result is that Cornwall has seen the highest annual average increase in new homes in England since it became a unitary authority, all whilst saving £15.5m per year through reduced running costs. It has also been able to distribute grants during Covid faster than anywhere else.

The government must make it easier for more counties to follow this path, setting out a consistent approach to unitarisation for local leaders rather than relying on a ‘deal-by-deal’ basis. To embrace levelling up, they must start by giving local areas the means to pursue this agenda themselves – from housing and planning to infrastructure, from skills and employment to health and social care. Instead of the current patchwork system, a new, more effective form of local governance is necessary to unlock regional growth and drive our economic recovery. If, where previously there have been only promises, the Prime Minister wants action on local devolution, then it is time to make counties count.