Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Power Struggle

The last ten days has witnessed tensions within the two main unionist parties which will have repercussions for years to come.

Two sleepy Westminster institutions, the Welsh Grand Committee and the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, both thought past their useful life, suddenly came alive and set in chain a series of events which caused great discomfort in Cardiff Bay.

A seemingly casual put down by the Welsh Secretary, and an incendiary speech by his shadow, lit a long fuse which caused consternation in Cathays Park, and set off a bomb in the Welsh Conservative group in the Assembly. But while it is possible to see these events through the prism of personalities and rivalries, both are about far more - the question of where political power in Wales resides?

It was Owen Smith’s speech that commanded the most attention initially.  Labour’s Shadow Welsh Secretary said the offer of income tax raising powers for the Welsh Government was ‘a trap’.  Pro-devolution Conservatives were quick to try and make political capital with their claim that he had ‘completely demolished the Silk Commission recommendations.  In practice, Owen Smith, was largely repeating his party’s ambivalence to a power they hadn’t asked for and a referendum they didn’t think could be won. The real kick came in an essay Smith wrote for the IWA a few days later. In it Smith went beyond his previous arguments that support for broader tax devolution was conditional on putting in place fairer funding for Wales.  He warned that the recommendations of the Silk Commission threatened the unraveling of the Union:  “What is a Union if not, at base, an economic and social alliance through the pooling of risk and the sharing of rewards?”, he wrote.

Carwyn Jones has been disciplined in his response.  Though he had no intentions of triggering income tax powers, he will resent having his negotiating position dictated by a Shadow Minister in Westminster.  But by putting his case in such fundamental terms, and ruling out income tax powers for the Assembly in the near future, Owen Smith has caused significant damage to the First Minister’s attempts to negotiate increased borrowing levels.  The intervention also sets the tone for discussions between the First Minister and Ed Milliband on the inclusion of other parts of the Silk Commission report in the next Labour manifesto.

Even though Carwyn Jones is Labour’s most senior politician in the UK to exercise power, he doesn’t have a free hand to decide his party’s devolution policy. Power devolved remains power retained.  After all it was a Westminster Government who set-up the Silk Commission, and MPs are keen to remind AMs that they remain the arbiters of the constitution.

It's a message the Welsh Secretary, David Jones, has been privately relaying to the Conservative leader in the Assembly for some time.  Andrew RT Davies has been resisting, and last week paid the price.
After sacking his leadership rival Nick Ramsay, and three other Shadow Cabinet members for defying a three line whip, he had to face reports that he is now “completely isolated” and was subjected to “100% universal criticism” from his party’s Welsh board.  Cardiff Bay insider Daran Hill judged it to be an epic blunder – the wrong issue, at the wrong time, in the wrong way.

The announcement of the sackings by Twitter wrong-footed the commetariat, who did not seem to see it coming, and in the fog war they chose to focus on a process story rather than the power story.  But as the tale unfolded the power struggle at the heart of the episode has become clearer.

In a deeply revealing interview on Radio Wales’s Sunday Supplement programme Andrew RT Davies acknowledged that people within his party have been trying to undermine his leadership since he was narrowly elected two and half years ago.  He said "There have been so-called texts, source briefings - no-one putting their name, but source briefings - and situations orchestrated that obviously make life a little awkward shall we say... within the party”.

Strong supporters of his, the programme host Vaughan Roderick put to him, had suggested that it is the Welsh Secretary, David Jones, who was behind attempts to destabilise him.  Andrew RT Davies didn’t demur, and noted, pointedly, “I and David Cameron are the only two people who have been voted on by the membership”.

Mr Jones sees himself as the legitimate leader of the Conservatives in Wales – a tension that has been familiar feature within both Labour and the Tories since 1999. And the Welsh Secretary has not been terribly subtle about his attempts to pressurize Davies into taking his lead from the Westminster leadership.

The struggle for dominance took on a more substantive dimension over the response to the recommendations of the Silk Commission.  David Jones has little patience with the view of all the Welsh party leaders that the income tax powers he’s proposing to devolve are unusable in their present form. They would want the flexibility to vary the three bands of income tax independently from one another. But the Treasury won’t wear it, and David Jones has been trying to get Andrew RT to sign up to a policy of cutting all tax bands by 0.5%. He thinks it is affordable and would be a vote winner for the Welsh Tories. Davies would prefer the flexibility to target tax cuts at individual income bands, most likely a cut in the top rate of tax to encourage high earners to move to Wales.

Far from being an academic distinction it is live political question at Westminster as David Jones has to pilot a draft Bill through the Commons to enact the power.  It is more difficult for him to swat opposition attempts to change the Bill when amongst their number is the ‘Leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the National Assembly’ (to give him his official title).  But instead of an elegant side-step the Welsh Secretary dismissed Davies’ evidence as a mere ‘personal view’.  Andrew RT rose to the bait and quickly issued a statement which made clear he was speaking on behalf of “the entire membership of the Welsh Conservative group in the National Assembly”.

But it seems he wasn’t.

Five members of the increasingly fractious Assembly group favoured supporting David Jones’ position (Byron Davies was, fortuitously, absent on the day of the vote and therefore spared the choice of following his instincts).  The internal dynamics are complex with elements of ideology, ego, opportunity, positioning and personal friendship at play.  But against the backdrop of a challenge to his authority from both the Welsh Secretary and his internal opponents, Andrew RT decided to make a (largely insignificant) vote a loyalty test.

Just as David Jones could have finessed the difference of view when he went before the Welsh Select Committee, Andrew RT Davies could have avoided a breech with his band of rebels over the vote in the Assembly.  But having decided to issue a three-line whip he could not have ignored the direct challenge to his authority.

On this site one of the rebels, Antoinette Sandbach, commented  “Sadly Andrew made us choose between party and group”.  Quite so. That was the point.

This crisis is not just a challenge to his leadership – though it clearly is – it represents an existential crisis for the Welsh Conservatives.

The political project begun by Nick Bourne of tackling the perception that the Conservatives are an ‘English’ party in Wales was, perhaps unexpectedly, taken up by Andrew RT Davies.  David Jones challenged that agenda when he was the junior Wales Office Minister under Cheryl Gillan and continues to do so now he sits around the Cabinet table.

Not all the rebels have the same motivation, but the outcome of their actions will be the same if they press their point.  The consequences of pushing Andrew RT Davies out do not appear to have been thought through, and would reverse the progress made by the party in the last ten years.
This story is far more significant than was first reported.  And it fits into a wider picture of MPs, worried about the momentum of the SNP, pushing back against the tide of devolution.

We are living through an extraordinarily fluid period of politics and it is impossible to discern how this story will play out.  But let’s be in no doubt about the forces at play, and the stakes they are playing for.

The myths and realities along the silk Road

When Dave and Nick strode into the Oriel of the Senedd building last month they did so with a purpose. “More power for the Welsh people and the Welsh government”, the Prime Minister told the initial press conference.

Since then the UK Government have published a fuller response to the recommendations of the Silk Commission, and this week unveiled a draft Wales Bill setting out how they will legislate to give AMs greater accountability for the money they spend.

"Power that's about building this country up, power that's about making sure we have real accountable government here in Wales” was what David Cameron said he was delivering on the November morning he came to Cardiff.  But the details that are emerging are less straightforward than the rhetoric might suggest.

The Welsh Government is to get permission to use its existing powers (inherited from the old WDA) to borrow £500 Million for infrastructure spending, and up to a similar amount to help with cash flow problems.  If they want to borrow any more than a modest £1 Billion  then they need to call a referendum (with the permission of the Welsh Secretary) and persuade the Welsh people to draw down powers to vary income tax.

The ‘minor taxes’ that the UK Government have agreed to hand over to the Welsh Government are just that, minor. Stamp duty, land tax and landfill tax are small beer in revenue raising terms. To begin to meet the expectations of unlocking investment capital that have been raised by the debate around Silk, income tax is the only show in town.

The political judgment from the Coalition Government is that Carwyn Jones needs an incentive to take on tax powers, and face up to the responsibility for raising, as well as spending, money. The First Minister has said all along he’d be quite happy to get the power to borrow, but he’s not inclined to accept tax powers without a fairer funding deal for Wales, recently labeling the current situation a trap. There are, of course, other considerations, not least the fact that the Labour Party is split, and the polls show a referendum would be hard to win.

But even with income tax powers the revenue the amount of money the Welsh Government can expect is modest.  While there are no precise figure, sums in the region of £125-140 million a year are expected, which would only allow Ministers to service a debt of around £2 billion ( amounting to little more than the cuts to the Welsh budget since the austerity drive began).

The UK Government have raised expectations about the scale of fiscal responsibility, which look increasingly unlikely to be met. Carwyn Jones may not think that such a modest sum is worth the political risk of calling a referendum.

“More power for the Welsh people and the Welsh government”, but only if they agree to use it for projects the UK Government approves of it seems. Old habits die hard in Whitehall, relinquishing control is not in the DNA. Even the £500 Million pounds that is available now to spend on infrastructure comes with very considerable strings – it must be spent on upgrading the M4.

As it happens the Welsh Government are also very keen on spending money on the M4 – even though much of the current Cabinet agreed to cancel plans for a new road in 2009.

Ministers have to be careful what they say about their preferred option for the motorway around Newport as the formal consultation is ongoing (they had to scrap the last one because of the threat of a legal challenge on environmental grounds). They need to be seen to be keeping an open mind, but it feels very much that Cathays Park and Whitehall would prefer to build a brand new section of motorway over the Gwent levels.

The trouble they have is the cost. £500 Million doesn’t go a long way when it comes to building a six lane motorway.  The Welsh Government has put the cost of a new stretch of M4 at £936 Million, but analysts believe £1.25 Billion is nearer the mark.

The cost of large infrastructure projects are notoriously hard to predict, but the Welsh Government’s current estimate for a new motorway is on the optimistic side.  The cost of building a new road was put at £1.25 Billion at the time the project was shelved in 2009.  The latest plans out to consultation assume the road can be built more quickly and therefore can be delivered for less than a billion - but analysts think the figures are unrealistic.

Prof Stuart Cole, Emeritus Professor of Transport at the University of South Wales, has told the IWA “The figure of £936 Million is based on an expected date of completion of 2020. If a completion date of2031 is used, which was the original assumption and is realistic, then £1.25 billion is a reasonable final figure for the expected outturn price”.

Prof Cole has put forward an alternative plan in a report published jointly by the IWA and the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, The Blue Route: a cost effective solution to relieving M4 congestion around NewportHis proposal - which had been the favoured option of transport officials at one stage - would cost £380 million (one third of the Government’s official estimate) and could be completed much sooner.

But even if a brand new motorway is thought to be the best option it may be a luxury that the Governments cannot afford.  BBC Wales Political Editor Nick Servini tweeted  that the “Welsh Government says £500m borrowing limit could be enough to build M4 relief road after it's topped up by other funds”.

That'll take a lot of 'other funds' and won't leave anything for the rest of Wales.
When it was announced that the Welsh Government would get new borrowing powers, the First Minister emphasised the money ‘is not just for the south of Wales, it is for the whole of Wales north and south’. A point echoed by Welsh Secretary David Jones who was quick to press the case for investment in the A55.

Tying up all of our borrowing powers, and potential future revenues, in one scheme in the south east is politically difficult.

No doubt more money could be found if there was a will to do so. Indeed, the ‘other funds’ Nick Servini refers to may well be a reference to the prospect of gilt market borrowing funded by the proceeds of future Severn bridge tolls. But there’s some way to go before that is a likely prospect.

In the meantime, as the dust settles on the UK Government’s detailed announcement on what “More power for the Welsh people” means, the spin of empowerment is feeling a little hollow.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Are the Silk threads unraveling?

Published on IWA blog on 11th November 2013

The Prime Minister and his deputy got the headlines they were after: Wales offered tax-raising powers by UK government. David Cameron was able to show the modern Conservative Party is pro-devolution and financially responsible, and Nick Clegg was keen to stress his party’s historic role in delivering ‘Home Rule all around’.
But just a week after the two men stood side by side in front of Richard Rodgers’ undulating wood celling, and the veneer is already beginning to peel away.
The UK Government have promised AMs the power to borrow money, and have given them the option to vary the rate of income tax and keep the proceeds.  But there’s a catch. The Chancellor may still get to decide what the borrowed money is spent on, and the tax powers are limited, and can only be used if there’s a fresh referendum within a time-limited period.
 Taken together, I think the conditions Cameron and Clegg have insisted upon make it unlikely that the offer of income tax powers will ever be taken up.
So what’s going on?
“David Jones was very enthused about the announcement” of devolving tax raising powers to Wales, Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies told the BBC last week. Really?  The Welsh Secretary who has been fighting trench warfare within Whitehall against moves to give more powers to Wales, enthused?
Hard to believe at first, but the more detail that emerges of the conditions of the deal, the more David Jones’ enthusiasm makes sense.
The Welsh Secretary is something on a sceptic about devolution. He did his best to quietly undermine the referendum on extra powers in 2011, and there is no doubt whom Kirsty Williams was referring to when she noted “there were people in London who didn’t want the Silk Commission to be established”.
But the little discussed, and coded, clause in the UK coalition agreement to set-up ‘a process similar to the Calman Commission for the Welsh Assembly’ set in train a process that was difficult to stop.
Modeled on the Commission which required the Scots to take greater responsibility for raising the revenue they spent, the Silk Commission was set up to achieve similar ends.
In exchange for extra powers would come more responsibility.  To avoid the Government in Cardiff constantly blaming Whitehall for insufficient funds or powers, Westminster wanted to ensure that AMs would face the discomfort of having to raise some of the revenue they wished to spend.
Since last November’s publication of the Commission on Devolution in Wales, chaired by Paul Silk, a hotly contested battle has been raging within the coalition on how to respond.  The Liberal Democrats have expended political capital within Government to fight for devolving tax powers.  Whilst the Prime Minister and Chancellor have been relaxed about the principles of the first part of the Silk report, the Secretary of State for Wales, David Jones, has been fighting its progress through Government at every step. The eventual announcement was seen a victory for the Lib Dems, and defeat for David Jones. However, that caricature is proving too exaggerated.
It has emerged there are two significant qualifications to the deal announced at the Senedd.
It seems likely that the chance to hold a referendum to trigger tax-varying powers will be subject to a cut off date. Unless the vote is held by a certain date – there is some speculation that this will be 2017 – then the deal is off.
The existence of a ‘sunset clause’ in the new Government of Wales Bill was effectively confirmed by Wales Office Minister Jenny Randerson last week. She told ITV’s Sharp End “It is a mechanism that people have put forward as a way in which we can ensure that something happens as an outcome to this in a reasonable timetable”.
By coming out in favour of holding a referendum soon, and pledging to campaign for a yes vote, Andrew RT Davies and Kirsty Williams hope to put pressure on Labour to draw down the tax powers. A position also backed by Plaid Cymru.  However, the First Minister seems to have no appetite for another referendum, or for ever using the power to change income tax rates. After all the Scottish Parliament have had the power since 1999 and have never used it.
Even if he wanted to get greater tax powers Welsh Labour MPs would be in open revolt if he tried.  Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith – who ironically is one of the more pro-devolution MPs – wrote on a Labour blog last week that devolving income tax without more generous grant funding from Westminster  “would be irresponsible in the extreme and lock in under-funding”.
Just as he warned David Cameron that he could only expect him to campaign against Scottish independence in next year’s referendum if he delivered on the Silk report, Carwyn Jones is now trying to pressure the PM to deliver improvements to the Welsh funding settlement if the PM wants the Welsh Government to take greater responsibility for raising its own revenue.  He told AMs last week “I could only campaign for income tax devolution if I was confident that the overall funding regime in place at that time was fair to Wales”. And there’s no chance of that happening unless Scotland leaves the UK, and even then no guarantee.
The First Minister is a lot keener on getting borrowing powers, as well as getting his hands on so-called ‘minor taxes’, like Business Rates, the Aggregates Levy and Air Passenger Duty. But despite a recommendation from the Silk Commission to pass them down to Cardiff, the UK Government have refused.
Stamp Duty Land Tax and Landfill Tax are to be devolved to Wales, but the Treasury may try to decide how the proceeds are used. After all the Welsh Government already has the power to borrow using the powers it took off the old WDA, but it can only exercise them with the approval of the Chancellor.  It is far from clear how much lee-way George Osborne will give the Welsh Government, especially if it is to fund anything other than a new M4.
As Conservative MP Glyn Davies noted on his blog “If its using powers already in existence, and limiting it to what UK Govt approves, not sure how much of a constitutional change this actually is”.
But perhaps the biggest impediment to getting Labour to sign-up to holding a referendum are the constraints on how the income tax varying powers will work. The Silk Commission recommended that Wales be allowed to vary individual tax bands, but the Treasury seems to insist on the same arrangements as Scotland, where it is only possible to raise or cut all tax bands at the same time.
So AMs will be allowed to vote to increase everyone’s income tax in Wales, but they will not be able to cut the top rate of tax.  That alone is enough to kill a referendum campaign before it begins.
As the person charged with shaping the messaging for the Yes for Wales campaign in the 2011 referendum, I do not see how you could sell that message to a public sceptical of politicians in an age of austerity – Even if you could get all parties lined up together to trigger a referendum and campaign in favour.
No wonder David Jones was enthused. As the old saying goes, he who laughs last, laughs loudest.

A second city – relegation for Swansea?

Published on IWA blog on 5th August 2013

Is Swansea Wales’ second City? In population terms certainly, but it seems a rather dated question – reflective of a time when the ‘principality’ was only worthy of two perhaps.  With the elevation of Newport  to city status it is probably more productive to think in terms of Wales having several ‘second cities’.
So what then of Swansea’s identity?  That too is changing.  The last census showed a growth in the city’s population of around 15,500 over the last decade with Swansea becoming more cosmopolitan (though still 94% white).
A 9.0% fall in the number of welsh speakers (greater than the 3.5% fall recorded for Wales over the period), underlines the sense that discussions about Swansea’s ‘identity’ are more appropriately framed in terms of the city having several ‘identities’.
Any sense of place, and the orientation of the people who live there, is of course dynamic. Identities are fluid, and are constantly changing. Swansea’s is rich and complex, but perhaps no more so than a similarly sized town in England.
The more relevant question for modern Swansea is ‘is it more than the sum of its parts?’. Without a coherent sense of direction Swansea risks being buffeted by the severe storms on the horizon.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that Welsh Councils face spending cuts of 18% in the next few years. Politicians will want to try and protect key frontline services like education and social services from the worst. But even assuming they can limit reductions in key areas to 9% that will mean that spending on other services will have to come down by an eye watering 52%.  This is a game-changing scenario. Efficiency cuts, or collaboration, cannot produce savings of this magnitude. It will require real sacrifice and political pain as the budgets for libraries, parks, leisure centers, public toilets and other visible services are slashed.
This is something all Welsh councils will face, but Swansea enters this storm in an already battered state.  Next year it has a projected deficit of £5m, with a forecast shortfall of £22m in 2015/16 and £35m in 2016/17.
Add into the mix Swansea’s weak economic base – the city falls within one of the poorest regions in the European Union; its dependency on the public sector – a third of its working population work for the state; and the fact that nearly 20% of its population is over 65; and it has higher than average percentage of residents with a long term health problem or disability (at just under a quarter).
Even a city secure in its identity and clear on its future direction would struggle to deal with these profound challenges.  Swansea, however, is not in this position.  My own experience of dealing with every authority in Wales in my previous role is that the city and county of Swansea is one of the weakest. My anecdotal canvassing of people ahead of last week’s IWA event in the city found that the two words most often repeated to describe the city’s politics were ‘messy’ and ‘nasty’.
“The current structure of local government – party political, ward-based councillors… – means that it can be more difficult to take tough, timely strategic decisions that, although they may create winners as well as losers, would benefit thecity overall.” Andrew Carter of the Centre for Cities think tank wrote in a wide-ranging report on the potential impact of directly elected mayors.
The report argued that Mayors, due to their strong ‘place-wide’ mandate, can help, both where they have formal authority and where they use ‘soft power’ to influence relationships across Government, business, and civil society.  The evidence seems clear enough in Bristol.  The capital of south west of England was just one of two cities that voted in referenda to replace their cabinet structure with a directly elected Mayor. George Ferguson, an independent, has brought both definition and flair to the city’s leadership.
Clearly an elected Mayor is no panacea. The multiple challenges Swansea faces would not melt away by the election of a single figure, no mater how dynamic.  But it would help the City to articulate a unified vision for its future direction, and would help create a catalyst to the transform the culture and focus of the council bureaucracy.  And if the system of using ‘open primaries’ to select candidates was adopted wholesale the process could be used to oxygenate Swansea’s politics.
If the city has serious ambitions to rank alongside Cardiff it needs to chart a new course.  It cannot expect aid or support from elsewhere. This is a journey that has to be driven from within the city.
Swansea has a natural advantage in its location, and a tremendous opportunity in the growing reputation of the city’s University, but it is not yet doing enough to capitalise on either.
If it does not strike out in a fresh direction Swansea risks being overwhelmed by forces beyond its control, and the notion that it was ever considered a second city will be laden with pathos.

Carwyn Jones’ government by instinct

Published on IWA blog on July 22nd 2013

On his nine-month journey through the United States in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville discerned the characteristics of a young nation with a clarity that few have matched. Surveying a society in the throes of rapid change, the young French aristocrat was planning a treatise to help his countrymen – who had just endured the trauma of a bloody revolution – to understand the dynamics of a new democracy.
The society he famously captured in Democracy in America - a work more quoted than read – was insulated from the intense ideological battles that shook Europe. Tocqueville admitted to some regret at the “low rhetorical temperature” of this young country gripped by materialism. As he weaved his way down the east coast of America he jotted the conversations he had, and the insights he gleaned. His notebook captures a conversation with a lawyer who told him, “In truth there are no parties now in the United States; everything is reduced to a question of men – those who have power and those who want it, the ins and the outs”.
When I read this observation recently it struck a chord. Our own young democracy is struggling to define itself during a period of change that is less dramatic, but perhaps just as profound as the times captured by Tocqueville. But what strikes me about the current state of Welsh politics is the ‘low temperature’ of it all.
Apart from those most closely engaged in the struggles of governing, most observers of the current scene seem under-whelmed by it all. And yet circumstances would suggest things should be much livelier: a Welsh Government with the power to pass its own laws for the first time; a Westminster Government of a different ideological complexion pushing through the most radical austerity programme in living memory; and the not inconsiderable fact that our First Minister is running a Government without a majority. Surely, taken together, these trails of gunpowder should trace towards a powder keg ready to ignite at any moment?
But modern Welsh politics feels anything but combustable. An oft repeated reason in the bars of Cardiff Bay is the weakness of the opposition in the National Assembly. Of course, it is seductively convenient for supporters of the Labour minority Government to point to the failings of others to excuse their own torpor. Their argument, however, is not entirely without force.
The unity of opposition party leaders in the last Assembly is noticeably absent, and the conditions which almost saw a non-Labour ‘Rainbow coalition’ take office have radically altered. The consensual instincts of Ieuan Wyn Jones and Nick Bourne, and their more united groups, have not been replicated by Leanne Wood and Andrew R.T. Davies. Moreover, the politics of Westminster now make it politically impossible for Plaid Cymru to form a coalition with the parties in power in Whitehall. In addition Leanne Wood’s own political strategy is clearly designed to play the long game. Her emphasis on community activism (an area in which she is perhaps most comfortable) and the decision to put the case for independence at the front and centre of her party’s platform, makes the prospect of a repeat of the ‘One Wales’ coalition in this Assembly seem remote.
The cumulative impact is to give Carwyn Jones breathing space. Whereas Rhodri Morgan’s Government had to be alert for Opposition attempts to trip it up – with Special Advisers at one stage packing up their desks in anticipation of defeat – his successor has had more luck. Even though he does not have an overall majority of AMs at his command, the First Minister isn’t worried about being defeated.
To date Labour has been able to pick off opposition parties to agree ad hoc deals to get its annual budget through. Despite sizeable in-year spending cuts expected this year, and an increasingly tough overall budget settlement for at least the next two years, the First Minister expects to be able to continue to agree annual deals with opposition parties. In exchange for the odd bit of pork barrel they seem content to let him carry on. If politics is about gaining and exercising power, they clearly have not read the memo. No wonder he seems so relaxed. For their disunity and the absence of hunger to seize control the opposition parties can be justifiably criticised. But there their culpability ends.
Conservative AM David Melding predicted in the run up to the last Assembly elections that if Labour won an outright majority, “Carwyn Jones is likely to resemble James Callaghan on a sleepy afternoon”. In the event he didn’t secure a majority and so can’t afford to nap but it does feel as though he’s coasting. There are grumblings of discontent on his own backbenches – echoed indignantly by opposition AMs – at his cavalier, and at times flippant, approach to the weekly First Minister’s Questions.
In 2006, when Chief Political Correspondent for ITV Wales, I wrote a piece for Agenda on the potential successors to Rhodri Morgan. At the time Carwyn Jones was Environment Minister but had his sights quietly, but firmly, fixed on the top job. In my assessment of him I wrote:
“He has shown little initiative with issues like sustainable development and fair trade that fall within his brief. Carwyn’s critics say all this is evidence of laziness. ‘He doesn’t put the work in’, according to a well-placed source, a sentiment echoed by civil servants and politicians with alarming consistency.”
The phrase which survived that piece was ‘lazy’. However, reflection, it is the lack of initiative or policy drive that is the more lasting concern. When challenged Carwyn Jones can show his innate ability. But he is not often challenged externally, and he doesn’t encourage challenge from within: not from his Ministers, his advisers or from wider circles.
Instead, he relies heavily on his instincts, which to date have served him well enough. His early call for a Constitutional Convention to discuss the future shape of the UK is a good example of where he has gone with his instincts to good effect. It can go wrong, however. Notable examples were his fff the cuff forays on the merits of welcoming the nuclear fleet from Scotland in the event of a referendum Yes vote; and the bizarre demand for S4C to pull a repeat of the Welsh language soap opera Pobl y Cwm that criticised the Government’s badger cull on the grounds that there was a council by-election being held on the day it was due to air.
But perhaps the biggest test of the value of his instinct will be the fate of Cardiff airport. The gamble of taking the declining facility into public ownership is in many ways a classic example of the First Minister’s approach. It shows a keen understanding of popular feeling – shoppers at Tesco in Bridgend would readily agree that something must be done about the state of the airport. It fits into a patriotic narrative that every serious country has an airport, and in similar terms responds to the echo of the business community. But – and it’s a big ‘but’- there is no sense that it forms part of a wider strategy or plan.
Rhodri Morgan, who is known to have had his doubts about Carwyn Jones, wrote a typically coded assessment in his quirky Western Mail column when the intention to buy the airport became clear. He said:
“If he can drive the purchase price down low enough to create a bit of headroom for improvements at the terminal; if he can find a savvy airport operator who can organise the turn round (and the catch up with Bristol), and finally if he can find the right low cost airline as a partner, it could turn out to be a master stroke. It will help to define his First Ministership.”
Three big ifs – and he’s right. It is risky ground. Whereas the First Minister’s other missteps attracted little attention beyond the political village, his bold move on the airport has cut through. There will be a reward if it goes well, but if not the failure will be remembered and be quoted on the doorstep.
Good instincts are a great asset in a leader. But though necessary, they are not sufficient. They are by definition reactive reflexes. What is still not clear, more than three years into his leadership, is what Carwyn Jones’ narrative or strategy is. “Standing up for Wales”? Fine. “Delivery”? Yes, but of what, when and to whom is unclear.
There is no clear articulation of what the Welsh Government is trying to achieve. As Tocqueville noted of 1830s America, “Everything is reduced to a question of men – those who have power and those who want it, the ins and the outs”.
Commentators and analysts can quickly come up with a list of Ministers and sketch out their personal agenda or personality traits, but defining how their approaches come together is more difficult. For example, Leighton Andrews and Carl Sargeant’s directive approach to local government doesn’t easily complement Leslie Griffiths or Mark Drakeford’s attempt to shift decision making for hospital closures to the local level (that is unless they come up with the wrong answer). John Griffiths’ commitment to sustainable development doesn’t naturally fit with Edwina Hart’s support for deregulation in planning, or her renewed support for large road building programmes– in contrast to her predecessor.
Policy shifts whenever there’s a change in Minister. Edwina Hart is currently reexamining all the road schemes approved by Carl Sargeant, who in turn had re-examined all the schemes approved by Ieuan Wyn Jones, who when he became Transport Minister examined all the schemes approved by Andrew Davies (Brian Gibbons didn’t stay in post long enough to make any decisions).  Add in the fact that the department has had five senior civil servants in charge over the last six years and it adds to the sense of incoherence.
The current cabinet is a collection of Ministers who have their own agendas, but it is not apparent that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Carwyn Jones has emphasised ‘delivery’ but has shown fitful concern with the ineffectiveness of the government – creating a little understood ‘delivery unit’, and sponsoring a new public policy research institute – but has not demonstrated a consistent drive to get a grip of the machinery of government or set a coherent framework for the diffuse agendas of his Ministers. The creation of a ‘Treasury function’ has been much trailed as a way of strengthening the centre, but that too is undefined.
Perhaps the clearest attempt to articulate an over-arching vision came from one of the cabinet’s newest entrants, the Natural Resources Minister Alun Davies. He told a recent breakfast seminar in Cardiff Bay: “Tackling poverty, equalities and sustainability are the three things that underpin everything”. Well, it’s a start…
In the Welsh Government’s defence it faces enormous external challenges.  The early stages of the Westminster Government’s austerity programme, and its accompanying suite of welfare reforms, present multiple problems. And they are problems which will get worse. An Institute for Fiscal Studies report for the Welsh Local Government Association suggested that local authorities face an overall cut of 18 per cent. Assuming that reductions are limited to 9 per cent in key areas – social services, environmental services and refuse, and education – will require cuts of 52 per cent in spending on all other services.
Given the political pain of achieving cuts in the order of 5 per cent in the NHS, the scale of cuts to local services has the potential to provoke a considerable backlash.
To date Carwyn Jones has had a well defined, and successful, political strategy: to blame the UK coalition. But even assuming he can continue to manage the politics, the implications for how he governs will be profound.
For example, in a very badly handled episode in the days before Christmas, AMs were recalled from their break to approve changes to Council Tax benefits to mitigate the impact of cuts being made in England.  After initially saying they couldn’t afford to do so, the Welsh Government found £22 million to delay a cut in housing benefits. But that is only for one year. They now face a dilemma this autumn on what they will do next year – in the context of a further reduced budget – without the same ability to blame the knock-on consequences of Government policy in England. When pressed by a Labour backbencher in an Assembly committee on whether there was a “clearly thought out strategy” to respond to the welfare changes, the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, Huw Lewis, floundered and plaintively replied “We cannot say what it will be”.
Instincts will only get the Government so far.
Having lived though the French Revolution Alexis de Tocqueville had a residual attachment to intense ideological battles. He wrote, “What I call great political parties are ones that attach themselves to principles and not just their consequences, to generalities and not just particular cases; on the whole they have nobler features, more generous passions, stronger convictions, and a franker bolder style than the others”. The America of 1831 did not meet that test, and it is unlikely that he would have been much impressed by Wales some 180 years later.

Critical friend – the IWA’s key role

Published on the IWA blog on April 24th 2013

What should the priority for the IWA be? As you might imagine, it’s been a question that has been exercising me in recent weeks. My conclusion is: to be a critical friend.
If small countries need to be smart to succeed then sketching out what a smart country looks like is one of the IWA’s primary roles. But to achieve a high performance culture we must first create a self-critical culture, and we have some way to go.
“The thing to remember about Ministers”, a senior civil servant recently told me, “is that they don’t like criticism”. Nor do senior civil servants, I might add. As understandable a human impulse as that is, it’s not the mindset we need if we’re going to achieve the promise of devolution.
We’re too small a country to self-censor, but we have developed an aversion to challenge.
I’ve spent seven years as a political journalist coaxing people to say on the record what they were willing to say off the record, and have spent the last six years leading a charity that has had to balance its desire to push decision makers with its reliance on Ministerial goodwill to achieve its aims. So I feel I have some insight into the uncomfortable line that people in Welsh civil society have to walk. There is palpable fear of speaking truth unto power.
Of course that is not unique to Wales, but our small size and our narrowly drawn political class, magnify the problem. Devolution may have succeeded in bringing Government closer to the people, but closeness brings problems of its own.
To become a smart country we must relentlessly ask ourselves how we can improve, but too often we hold back for fear of causing offence and inviting recriminations.
So what can the IWA do about it? Well, the Institute occupies an almost unique space at the nexus of a web of relationships of people from across the spectrum. By bringing people together the IWA can be that ‘safe’ place where ideas can collide and solutions can be forged.
The lesson I’ve drawn from my own experience of working closely with decision makers at every level is that if you demonstrate credibility as a constructive force, you can combine it with challenge. Having just finished a ten year stint as a school Governor I find that the concept of the ‘critical friend’ that is used in the education profession crystallises it nicely:
“A critical friend can be defined as a trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critiques of a person’s work as a friend”.
In short, it is someone who offers challenge from a desire to improve and not destroy.  That’s what I think the IWA is for.
I’m acutely conscious of the efforts of those who have created the IWA. The last 25 years of the Institute’s history can be fairly characterised as having helped create the conditions for legislative devolution for Wales – something hard to imagine in 1987.  Having done so much to deliver devolution, the IWA now has a responsibility to ensure our National Assembly and its Government meets the expectations that have been created.
As one of the few bodies in Welsh public life not to receive funding from the Welsh Government (apart from £8,000 a year from the Welsh Books Council – towards the cost of publishing literary material in The Welsh Agenda) we are truly independent of party or faction. As such are well placed to play the part of critical friend. But we can’t do it alone. And we certainly can’t do it without members and supporters. If you value what we’re trying why not consider joining the IWA. Together we can all help smarten things up.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Where have all the children gone?

Posted on National Trust Outdoor Nation blog on 21 March 2013

I’m not yet 40, but when I was growing up I fondly remember playing in the street with my neighbours, kicking a ball, running around, riding our bikes – even splashing in puddles. I’m not being nostalgic – everyday wasn’t summer, but we did have carefree play; we had a taste of freedom, independence and risk. We could leave the house from our front door straight into our own playground.

My children do not play on the street, even though we live in a quite cul-de-sac. As a parent I am scared.

What’s changed? Well the pictures below – the same street from a Valleys community in Wales half a century apart – tell a better story than any words can.

The first thing that strikes me is that there are no children in the modern pictures. Come to think of it how often do we see children playing in the street? Do you hear them laughing?

What’s changed? Cars, plenty of them, moving quickly. Our communities are no longer places where people, and children, come first - instead the car has become king. Speeding traffic now blights many of our residential communities, meaning parents feel the need to keep their children inside and occupied with television or computer games.

Childhood obesity is costing the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds every year and our lack of physical activity increases the risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart diseases and some cancers.

Whereas once we used our local shops on an almost daily basis, we now load up at the supermarket, which is bad for our high streets and the local economy, including local farmers.

This change doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of modern life. Of course, we won’t go back to how things were in the 50s and 60s, but we can change our streets for the better to make them places where children can feel safe to play, to ride a bike and to meet their neighbours.

Already we are seeing more communities calling for 20mph limits across residential communities. A child hit by a car at 20mph has a 95% chance of surviving, but hit at 35mph and there is an over 50% chance they’ll die. This one change alone could make our streets safer for play once again.

However, these lower limits must be enforced by the police. Giving evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Enquiry to ‘Get Britain Cycling’, the Association of Chief Police Officers said they weren’t minded to enforce 20mph. Over the coming days they tried to clarify their position, but the worry for many communities is that the police aren’t on their side when it comes to speeding traffic. That will need to change.

We can also redesign our streets. Sustrans’ own DIY Streets programme is just one example of how communities come together to reallocate space in their area, adding greenery, benches and new road markings to show that the street is a place for people – and for play.
We must also make sure we have safe routes for walking and cycling linking local communities and linking people from where they live to the places they need to go: local shops, schools, jobs, leisure centres. Here Wales is leading the way, with the publication this year of the Active Travel Bill, which will place a legal duty on local authorities to provide a safe network of routes.

But across the UK as a whole too little is being done and our communities are poorer for it. We can change our streets for the better. If we don’t, we’ll never hear the sound of children playing on the street again.

Lee Waters is the National Director of Sustrans Cymru. He has two young children who he wishes could play outside more than they currently do. Previously he worked for ITV Wales as Chief Political Correspondent and prior to that as a BBC Producer.