Dan Boucher is a prospective Welsh Conservative Assembly Member for South Wales West in 2016.
Last Thursday I attended George Osborne’s Cardiff speech. During his address, the Chancellor reminded us that 70,000 new jobs have been created in Wales since 2010; unemployment has fallen by 30 per cent; and superfast broadband has been rolled out to over half-a-million homes and businesses. He then went on to invite those present to reflect on where the Welsh economy might be today if it was able to enjoy the benefits of Conservative economic policy from Cardiff Bay as well as from Westminster. It is a good question on which we would all do well to dwell in the run-up to the Welsh Assembly elections on 5th May.
The truth is that, having been run by a Labour administration now for 16 years, Wales is missing out on all manner of fronts. For example, our educational outcomes have now fallen into the bottom half of the PISA league tables, and, during this Assembly term, we are the only part of the UK to have endured a real-terms cut in health spending of nearly £1 billion.
One area of policy shortfall that I drew attention to in my 2013 IWA publication The Big Society in a Small Country is the reluctance of the Welsh Government to embrace the localism/community rights agenda that has been pursued by Conservative ministers in England. Instead of seizing hold of the Community Right to Bid, the Welsh Government has not commenced the relevant part of the Localism Act in Wales. The Community Right to Challenge, meanwhile, does not apply to Wales at all, I am told, because it was not deemed appropriate in Wales. This reluctance to empower local communities is highly ironic given that we in Wales rightly pride ourselves in being a “community of communities”.
In May 2015, however, the Welsh Government finally launched a consultation asking the people of Wales whether we would like to see the Community Right to Bid commenced here. Perhaps concerned that this belated catch-up with England might not look great presentationally, the consultation also gave people the option of a distinctively “made in Wales” approach that would go further, giving communities the right to proactively seek asset transfers from public authorities. For those familiar with the Localism Act, though, this sounds very much like a weaker version of the Community Right to Challenge which has been operational in England for the last four years.
In December, just before the Welsh Assembly broke for the Christmas recess, the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty published a summary of the consultation responses and set out the Welsh Government position. The public response demonstrated that only 23 per cent favoured the status quo, and that a massive 78 per cent of respondents wanted to be able to proactively initiate asset transfer from public bodies. The sad thing is that, even if the Welsh Government now decided that it wanted to embrace the community rights agenda, the earliest that Wales could begin to enjoy them would be 2017. England, meanwhile, has enjoyed a full suite of community rights, including the Community Right to Bid and Challenge, since 2012. Interestingly, however, the Minister’s statement on the Welsh Government’s position committed them to neither. She explained: “I am not in a position to commit a future Government to any specific action.”
If Wales had a Welsh Conservative Government this last Assembly term, then, in addition to experiencing the full benefit of real economic competence, the people of Wales would have enjoyed a full suite of community rights for four years, and not had to wait until the next Assembly just for the possibility of some of these rights. The truth is that the statist faith of Welsh Labour has blinded it to the importance of the community rights. Had they not fallen into the trap of confusing Labour ideology for Welsh culture, they would have realised the importance of this policy area and could have led the way on introducing community rights in Wales.
After 16 long years of Labour administration in Wales, propped up by the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru – who have both formed coalitions with them and voted through their budgets – I very much hope that the Welsh Conservatives will form the next Welsh Government in May and bring Wales the real change we badly need.