The last 25 years have seen a significant and sustained increase in public support for devolution in Wales. The 1997 referendum produced only a wafer thin majority in favour of creating a Welsh Assembly. Now fewer than 1 in 5 of the adult population say that they would vote to reverse that decision, whilst a third want the Senedd to have more powers. 40% of 16-24 year olds, the first generation to have grown up with devolution, favour full independence. But does public support mean that devolution can be declared a success, or should we be asking more of it?
For many, the case for the Assembly was a normative one, focused primarily on national identity and self-determination. But the 1997 ‘Yes’ campaign also relied heavily on the ‘functionalist’ argument that Wales needs homegrown policies tailored to its distinctive socio-economic and political context. This would, we were promised, give us better governance, more responsive public services, and a stronger economy. A decade on, the Richard Commission and the Secretary of State both held to this line. Peter Hain argued that the acid test for a stronger Assembly was whether it would benefit Wales ‘in practical terms’, while Baron Richard believed that an Assembly with greater powers could provide ‘more open, participative, and responsive government’ and ‘better policy outcomes’.
So has the political success of devolution been matched by better governance and improved outcomes?
Early on, Wales’ then First Minster, Rhodri Morgan, talked of ‘clear red water’ between Cardiff and Westminster. Distancing themselves from the Blairite model of user choice and competition between services, Welsh Ministers espoused a ‘citizen-centred’ approach which relied on partnership with, and between, local authorities. And there were notable differences from UK government policies including: free prescriptions, hospital parking, school breakfasts, and swimming for children and older people; the early adoption of a Children’s Commissioner; the non-hypothecation of local government budgets; and the rejection of the ‘Best Value’ regime in favour of self-assessment by councils. A decade on, the Assembly became the first UK legislature to introduce a mandatory charge on single-use carrier bags. By 2014, it had created a distinctive statutory framework for tackling homelessness. The following year it enacted world-leading legislation to promote the well-being of future generations. And more recently we’ve had: the Welsh Government’s own particular approach to Covid-19 restrictions; the outlawing of parental physical punishment in March this year; the co-creation of the Anti-racist Wales Action Plan, published in June; and this month’s roll out of a new school curriculum, along with universal free school meals for primary pupils.
In truth, none of these distinctive ‘Welsh’ policies can be said to have really shifted the dial on key economic and social indicators. Like the rest of the UK, Wales has struggled to raise productivity or reduce poverty. But that’s clearly an unrealistic expectation of a devolved government with little control over macro-economic policy or the benefits system. Maybe we should be looking, instead, for a devolution dividend in areas like health, social care, education, transport, and local government which the Assembly/Senedd has overseen for the last two decades. The problem is that we lack robust data to track the performance of these services over the last 20 years, or compare this with other parts of the UK. So we just don’t know whether public services in Wales are now better, worse, or about the same as they would have been if voters had rejected the creation of the Assembly back in 1997.
There is one other area in which devolution might be expected to have had a demonstrable impact – it should have given us the ability to forge a distinctive approach to the ways in which policies are formulated and implemented.
A small country with a close knit policy community and unusual degree of political continuity, ought to be able to develop and implement policy in ways that just weren’t possible prior to devolution. Welsh Government departments sometimes still work within the ‘silos’ they inherited from Whitehall, but in theory they should be well placed to develop joined-up approaches to cross-cutting policy challenges. The local government map cooked up in the corridors and committee rooms of Westminster in the mid-1990s remains in place. And the complex overlapping sub-regional and regional governance arrangements superimposed on it have blurred the lines of accountability and led to partnership fatigue. But the ability to gather the four police chiefs, 22 local authority leaders, seven health board chief executives, and other key decision makers together in one room (or on one Zoom) means that they are able to co-ordinate their plans and actions, as we saw during the pandemic. The Well-being of Future Generations Act provides an overarching framework which gives a sense of shared purpose and priorities, and the five ways of working set out in the Act enjoy wide support. Wales now has access to research from across the UK, and around the world, as a result of investments in evidence intermediaries like the Wales Centre for Public Policy, Wales COVID-19 Evidence Centre, and the soon-to-be-created Health and Care Research Wales Evidence Centre. The problem is that austerity has eroded the ‘absorptive capacity’ which is needed to act on the evidence to deliver on the aspirations of the Well-being Act. Budget cuts in local government have forced councils to shed staff working in analytical roles in order to protect ‘frontline services’, and Audit Wales reports that the Welsh Government now employs 9% fewer full-time equivalent staff than in 2009/2010 as it seeks to control its costs. These financial pressures aren’t going to ease any time soon, but one of the key challenges for the next 25 years is to find a way to build the policy capacity and capability that both national and local government need to equip them to develop and deliver policies which really do improve the lives of the people of Wales, so that we reap the full benefit of that ‘Yes’ vote in 1997.