Nick Webb was the Conservative candidate for Newport
East in the 2011 Assembly elections and is now Deputy Chairman of Newport
Localism, and tackling the cross-border challenge unites the
Conservative response to the Silk Commission. The Commission, established in
2011, is in the final month of hearing evidence before preparing a report due
for publication in Spring 2014.
Silk’s current remit is to look at the balance of powers
between devolved Wales and the UK Government. In practice, this is almost
certainly going to result in more powers being devolved to Cardiff Bay,
although one recent opinion poll showed a notable minority in support of
returning health and education policymaking to Westminster.
It would be wrong to claim that debate around “Silk” has
engendered excited debate amongst the electorate, but it certainly has been a
focus of the political class. The outcomes of the Commission are likely to be
significant in shaping Wales’s future.
The Welsh Conservative Assembly Group finds itself with a
very delicate balancing act. Much of the Party membership remains hostile to
principle of Welsh devolution. However, electoral reality requires the group to
be an acceptable coalition partner to Welsh nationalists and, more broadly, not
to be fighting the battles of yesterday.
There is certainly disagreement over some elements of Silk. For
instance, the Assembly Group supports devolution of planning policy for energy
schemes up to 100MW (the current limit is 50MW). This is opposed by Glyn
Davies, the Montgomeryshire MP, who is a vocal opponent of wind farms and fears
that the Welsh Government may be more supportive than Whitehall of applications
in his back yard.
The Assembly Group has also acknowledged, albeit in tentative
terms, that there is scope for devolution of “a significant element of
financial accountability”. In
comparison, David Davies, MP for Monmouth, cited the Welsh Government’s failure
to maintain comparable standards with England in health, education and the
economy. He warned that “granting powers
to tax and borrow would simply increase the potential for Wales to be left at a
disadvantage”. Meanwhile, David Melding, Assembly Member for South Wales
Central, repeats his call to prepare for a fully federal UK.
The Assembly Group’s submission sensibly noted that their
response was based on the tools at the disposal of the Welsh Government and was
not a judgement on the performance of the incumbent administration. However, the
institution of Welsh Government cannot properly come of age and be distinct
from the Labour Party until a change of governing party occurs. One could
therefore argue that those expressing concerns about the current state of Welsh
Government decision-making are simply being pragmatic about how new powers will
The Assembly Group’s submission tiptoes through a number of
areas where there is division amongst members but also includes ideas such as a
St David’s Day Bank Holiday and devolution of the Severn Bridge tolls, a matter
which has cross-party support in Wales but is understandably less popular on
the other side of the estuary.
There is unity on some matters. A desire for devolution to
extend deeper than the Cardiff Bay bubble, so that it can empower local
communities, is a feature of the responses of the Assembly Group, voluntary
party and of Christopher Salmon, Dyfed Powys Police & Crime Commissioner.
Likewise, the cross-border inconsistencies on health and transport, raised by
Flintshire Councillor Matt Wright and David Davies MP are echoed in responses from
the Conservatives in Cardiff Bay, as well as the Welsh Party Chairman.
Those opposed to further devolution were dealt a blow last
month when the official opinion polling for the Silk Commission was published.
Support for more powers was 53 per cent while a further 9 per cent wanted independence. Only 3 per cent opted for fewer powers and 9 per cent supported abolition – a significant fall on
previous studies. The policy areas in which people were most keen to see powers
transfer to Wales were renewable energy (non-renewable was not asked about),
policing, and broadcasting. There was a narrow majority in support of devolving
welfare and benefits but opposition to powers over criminal justice heading
down the M4.
With public opinion polls showing far greater faith in the
Senedd than Parliament and a desire for further devolution to the Assembly, it
appears that Conservatives of all views will have to adapt to competing for
votes in a Wales which will have seen further change.