What has devolution delivered for Wales?

The day after marking its 25th birthday, the Welsh Senedd voted to increase its size by more than 50%.  In 2026 the Welsh public will therefore elect 96 members in place of the current 60.  Advocates of this change hailed it as a historic investment in democracy which reflected the significant strengthening of the Senedd’s law-making and tax-raising powers that has taken place since it first opened its doors in 1999. Opponents argued that the estimated annual cost of £18 million could be better used to cut waiting times, stimulate the economy and boost education. The priority should, they said, be more teachers, doctors, dentists and nurses, not more politicians.

These arguments for and against expanding the Senedd neatly capture some of the competing views about the first quarter of a century of devolution in Wales.

Fearful that the Welsh public would reject the idea of Scottish-style Parliament, the architects of Welsh devolution offered the people of Wales a National Assembly. Lacking the powers on offer in Scotland, the Welsh Assembly looked to many observers more like a large local authority than a national legislature.  And yet even this watered-down version of devolution only just squeaked through with a wafer-thin majority of 6,721 votes. With turnout at just 50%, Wales’ Assembly therefore started life with the explicit support of only 1 in 4 of the adult population.

Fast forward twenty five years and the picture looks very different. After a shaky start, the devolved institutions in Wales have steadily gained public support, accrued new powers and policy levers, and steered the country through challenging times, notably the outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease in 2001 and the Covid-19 pandemic twenty years later.  Fewer than 1 in 5 of the Welsh electorate now say that they would vote ‘no’ to a Senedd and 40% of 16-24 year olds, the first generation to grow up with devolution, favour full independence.

So it’s easy to see why those who see devolution as a process of nation building believe the first twenty five years to have been a case of ‘So far, so good’.  The National Assembly (now Senedd) has shown it can get things done. Perhaps just as importantly, it has also demonstrated that it can do things differently. As in Scotland, Welsh politicians can point to tangible policy differences with UK Government policy, examples of what Wales’ second First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, famously called the ‘clear red water’ between Cardiff and London. Welsh innovations include being the first UK national to levy a charge on single use plastic bags, introduce presumed consent for organ donation and create a Commissioner for future generations. People in Wales receive free prescriptions, 16 and 17 year olds can vote in Senedd elections, Wales didn’t rely on Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deals to build hospitals and schools, and it recently introduced a default 20 mph speed limit in residential areas.

But it’s not just about policy content. The Welsh approach to policy making has also felt different. According to analysis by the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, Welsh Labour has won more seats and a greater share of the vote than rival parties at every General Election since 1922. It’s no surprise then that every Welsh Government has been led by Labour. But, short of an overall majority in the Assembly/Senedd, it has had to rely on the support of other parties in order to govern. There have been coalitions with the Liberal Democrats and then Plaid and a variety of formal and informal agreements to pass budgets and secure key planks of the programme for government.

This consensual approach has extended beyond the Senedd to the Welsh Government’s dealings with local government and a host of social partners.  There has been the occasional tetchiness but in general central-local relations have been a lot more cordial and constructive than across the border, and ministers have worked closely with union representatives and other stakeholders to shape policy.

There is also a discernible difference in the conduct of Welsh politics. From the outset the National Assembly was notable for its gender balance. In recent years there has also been greater political stability than in London ( from February 2000 and March 2024 Wales had just three First Ministers. During the same period the UK Government was led by six different Prime Ministers). And although the Senedd hasn’t been scandal-free, the optics of the British Prime Minister dropping in on Downing Street parties during lockdown were very different to those of a Welsh First Minister living in a granny flat at the end of his garden to shield his wife and mother-in-law. It was also notable that, unlike Boris Johnson, the (then) leader of the Welsh Conservatives resigned almost immediately after his possible breach of Covid regulations came to light.

Close to my own heart, another distinctive feature of post-devolution policy making in Wales has been a concerted attempt to use evidence to improve policy decisions. In 1999 the Welsh evidence ecosystem was very sparsely populated. Officials inherited from the Welsh Office were accustomed to tweaking laws passed in Westminster not devising new legislation, and there were very few external sources of policy ideas and challenge – Wales had only a smattering of small think tanks. Meanwhile, local authorities, the third sector, professions and other stakeholders took their cues from policies and funding programmes conceived in London and Brussels rather than Cardiff. That evidence landscape has now been transformed. Established in 2013, the Wales Centre for Public Policy works with ministers, local government and other public service leaders across Wales to provide them with easily accessible, authoritative, independent evidence from world-leading researchers. Over the last decade it has been joined by a host of other multi-million pound investments in evidence-based policy including the Health and Care Research Wales Evidence Centre which provides policy makers and practitioners with research evidence on health and social care challenges; Cymru Wledig, which provides evidence to address the challenges facing rural Wales funded by the ESRC; and a Health Determinants Research Collaboration in Rhondda Cynon Taf, which generates evidence and data to tackle health inequalities.

But have progressive policies, an inclusive and (sometimes) evidence-based approach to policy making, and a different kind of politics made any tangible difference to waiting times, the economy, the educational gap?  Sadly, the answer is ‘Not yet’.

Like the rest of the UK, Wales has struggled to raise productivity and failed to reduce poverty. Welsh GDP relative to England has hardly changed since 1999.  Hospital waiting times aren’t any shorter than in other parts of the UK, health inequalities aren’t any narrower, and the educational attainment gap has increased relative to comparator countries.

This lack of progress on the big economic and social challenges has to be factored into an assessment of Welsh devolution because the Yes for Wales! Campaign in 1997 relied heavily on the claim that homegrown policies, tailored to Wales’ distinctive socio-economic context, would produce a stronger economy and better public services.

In truth, this was always going to be a stretch for a fledging legislature with limited law- making and revenue-raising powers and no control over macro-economic policy or the benefits system. And it hasn’t been helped by austerity and the pandemic, both of which hit Wales hard because its population is older, has higher levels of deprivation and more long-term sickness than the UK average. But whilst this helps explain the lack of progress so far, it won’t wash in twenty five years’ time.

Wales has shown that weak devolved institutions, with very few powers and only half-hearted public support, can grow in stature and influence over time. And perhaps Combined Authorities and other devolved structures in England can draw some encouragement from this. But going forward the real test will be whether this more mature set of institutions, including a larger Senedd, can develop and deliver policies to tackle the big economic and social challenges. If it can’t, the public will probably question whether we needed more politicians. But if they can shift the dial on some of these big issues, policy makers in Wales will have something very significant to celebrate by the time the Senedd turns fifty.

This blog is part of an IPPO series looking at how policymaking across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland has been shaped by devolution since 1999.

Professor Steve Martin, who has been director of the Wales Centre for Public Policy since its inception in 2013 as the Public Policy Institute of Wales, is currently taking a step back from day-to-day leadership of the WCPP to enable him to work with colleagues, researchers and other evidence centres, to advance understanding of successful approaches to supporting evidence-informed policy making.