Robin Millar is the MP for Aberconwy.
Welsh devolution began twenty years ago with a promise. We were told that it would bring power to a local level and empower us to fix the problems we saw around us. Fundamentally, it was about giving people in Wales the power to improve our communities.
The dream was a noble one – the Welsh dragon will roar! But the reality is rather different. Devolution in Wales means power pooled in Cardiff and funding funnelled through the Bay. The sad truth is that our home here in North Wales has been overlooked and underfunded by a Cardiff-centric Welsh government. It is an experience familiar to many in central and West Wales also. For many, the Welsh dragon has gone to sleep.
And as the people in North and Mid Wales suffer low levels of infrastructure investment, and as parts of Wales experience some of the worst educational outcomes and highest rates of poverty in the UK, people are asking why? Even their representatives are asking, is there another way?
My local council, Conwy, is crying out for the resources to do the things that local communities and businesses want to see delivered. Its essential public services – to an ageing population – are hampered by a funding calculation that favours young people. Sam Rowlands, the council leader, has plans to deliver growth and attract new business through an innovative, sector leading, multi-million-pound Tidal Lagoon scheme and an extensive programme of investment in digital, road and rail connections.
Local leaders, like Rowlands, do not lack ambition as much as opportunity. They can be given what they need to deal with the issues they see in their communities and unlock the goodwill we have seen burst out in the pandemic. To be clear, this is not an original idea – the Welsh Local Government Association agrees with us. Its new Manifesto for Localism puts “greater fiscal autonomy and flexibility” for councils at the centre of its plan for recovery from the pandemic.
But sadly, this is not the view of a controlling Cardiff where “we know best” saturates government thinking in the Senedd.
In two decades, Wales has become one of the most centralised states in Europe. Councils must make do with money measured in Cardiff for centrally dictated objectives; community groups are pitted against each other in a fight for favour and funding. Organisations which enjoy high degrees of autonomy in England – like schools and NHS trusts – have their policies set directly from desks in Cardiff. In North Wales we know only too well that this has been a recipe for stagnation and failure – Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board has spent five years in special measures.
The “enlightened bureaucracy” of the Welsh Labour government in Cardiff has not worked for Wales in its administration of EU Structural and Investment Fund money either. The EU has pumped more than £1 billion into the Welsh government to deal with regional inequality. The net result? A multi-million quid cable car which broke down over 250 times, a £300 million “Communities First” fund that closed after a fraud scandal, and a countryside littered with abandoned “innovation centres”’.
During the pandemic, the UK government has so far pumped more than £5 billion into Welsh government to support high streets, zoos, charities, businesses and more – but £1 billion is still languishing in Welsh government bank accounts, unspent. Businesses and community groups are refused grants, or offered loans – and the people who run them worry how they will survive or if they will ever open again.
It is hard to see how any council could have done worse.
But there is hope. People are wising up. After twenty years of micro-management from the centre, it only took a few hours for the lockdown ban on “non-essential purchases” to fall apart as the people of Wales disagreed – and raised the largest, fastest public petition in the history of Welsh government to complain. The pointing fingers are now following the money and the power – back to the Labour government in Cardiff.
For all these reasons and more, the announcement by the Secretary of State for Wales, that the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) will work directly with councils is a ray of light piercing the gloom.
This is a game-changer. While over half of EU money has been diverted through Cardiff, just nine per cent has gone to councils in Wales – compare that with nearly 30 per cent that typically goes to councils in England. But the new SPF will bypass the Cardiff bureaucracy and organisations and go straight to people on the ground.
As Janet Finch-Saunders MS, our local Senedd representative, says, this is an exciting opportunity to work together in Aberconwy, in a way we have not been able to before; to see much needed investment channelled to the projects people want and into the places they care about.
And we won’t be the only local leaders to be stirred by the prospect of this community governance.
Up and down the country, Wales – like Aberconwy – is humming with the untapped energy of small businesses who are engaged and rooted in their community (95 per cent of businesses in Wales have less than ten employees). There are councillors, social entrepreneurs and volunteers, people of endeavour and vision in every town and village, eager to be trusted and empowered – and funded – so they can improve their communities.
There will no doubt be a fuss about working this way as an “attack on devolution”. It will come from those in Cardiff or who like things the way they are. But this is setting right what the Senedd has sucked upwards under Labour – powers and control from people and communities. And we have seen that is not working. Now it is time to deliver directly and do something different; to entrust the people who can be held accountable by their communities.
For most people, Cardiff feels as distant as Westminster. Unaccountable bureaucrats – who tell us which supermarket gifts we are permitted to buy or what we can drink – have not delivered. Give people the money to make a difference in their own communities. Unlock the potential that is waiting in Merthyr and Mumbles, from Llandudno to Llanelli.
And just maybe, the Welsh dragon will wake and walk our streets once more.