Adrian Mason is a lawyer and a former Deputy Chair Political of the North Wales Conservatives.
Congratulations to the Conservative candidates in Wales who have secured the most seats ever for the party in the Welsh Senedd – and an all-time high in the number of votes cast since devolution began in 1999.
However, the very real possibility is that these very respectable results may turn out to be the high-water mark for the Conservatives in Wales.
So, the plain question has to be asked: where has it got us?
Despite the immense hard work put into the Conservative election campaign, Wales is still trapped in a socialist orbit. Nothing has changed, and we now face another five years of Labour government. That is the way it has been since devolution was implemented 22 years ago, and unless something extraordinary happens, it is likely to be the position forever. That is the reality we face.
The Welsh Labour Party has its power base in the South Wales valleys. There are 25 constituencies confined within a small geographical area in south east Wales, broadly contained in the boundaries of the old county of Glamorgan. They are former mining and steel communities. No crumbling ‘red wall’ there, and any chance that they can be turned blue in our lifetimes is for the birds. All a party needs to achieve a majority in the Senedd is 31 seats, a mountain as high as Snowdon for the Conservatives to climb. So far, we are halfway up – but the path may have run out!
This leaves the whole of Wales subject to a socialist government that has little interest in anything other than in bolstering its own position with its core voters.
‘Devolution’ is defined by Oxford Languages as:
‘”The transfer or delegation of power to a lower level, especially by central government to a local or regional administration.”
Whilst power has been ceded by Westminster to Cardiff Bay in specific areas under the Government of Wales Act 2006, that is where devolution stops. For it to be true and effective devolution, powers should be further delegated to local authority level, allowing local decision-making in much the same way as is developing in England.
We have seven Conservative Members of the Westminster Parliament in North Wales, but their influence compared to English colleagues is diminished in such important areas as health, education, and social care, where they have no vote. Our elected Members in the Senedd, though increased in number, are still in a significant minority, and with the best will in the world, their voices will remain mute for all practical purposes.
As a member of Boris Johnson’s leadership election team in Wales, I organised an event for the now Prime Minister to address the faithful here in the North. He was left in no doubt about the strength of feeling by local people that devolution is not working for us. The people who attended that meeting will be watching carefully, expecting their voices to have been heard. In that regards, there are some positive signs.
The decision of the UK Government to facilitate the direct funding of new infrastructure developments within the devolved nations and regions is commendable. It means that, for the first time since devolution started, local authorities will receive money directly from Westminster in the form of the Levelling Up Fund, to invest £4.8 billion in high-value local infrastructure.
This money is available to all areas of the UK and its prospectus states that it is:
“Designed to help local areas select genuine local priorities for investment by putting local stakeholder support, including the local MP where they want to be involved, at the heart of its mission.”
As a consequence, Sarah Atherton, the Conservative MP for Wrexham, has been working on bids with Wrexham County Borough Council with its ‘Wrexham Gateway Project’. She is also engaging with a number of community groups to apply for the Community Ownership Fund. Former Secretary of State for Wales, David Jones of Clwyd West, is also actively involved with his local authorities formulating bids. The story is the same with all our Conservative Members across the region.
By facilitating direct bids to the Treasury, the scheme allows local people headed by our Conservative MPs to prioritise money for local issues. That is real devolution. It is great news for North Wales.
In another positive development, Westminster will be able to fund projects under the Shared Prosperity Fund to be launched in 2022. This source of funding has been designed to replace the EU Structural Fund.
There are, however, important differences. Firstly, taxpayers will receive all the funding, not having it ‘top-sliced’ by the EU and, crucially, it will be available directly from Westminster. Again, this is excellent news for local interests here in North Wales. It will allow local authorities to select their own priorities without having it blocked for political reasons by the Welsh Labour Government.
Although the political outlook in Wales remains discouraging for Conservatives, notwithstanding the good results last week, initiatives such as the Levelling Up Fund and Shared Prosperity Fund gives those of us in the North some independence from Cardiff Bay and allow our elected MPs to influence the direction of travel.
Despite the howls of objections raised by Labour politicians in Cardiff, funding by Westminster is not a threat to devolution; it actually enhances it through the principle of local decision-making. Opposition by the Welsh Government to direct funding by Westminster is more to do with politics than economics. If they really believed in disseminating powers to local level, rather than hoarding them for themselves, then they would be supporting and encouraging of these initiatives. Alas, this is not their modus operandi – as the last 22 years has aptly demonstrated.