20 @ 20: Devolution’s 20 Biggest Achievements

All this week, I’ll be posting articles on State of Wales to mark the 20th anniversary of devolution, looking at some of the achievements, failures, most influential AMs, key moments as well as a look at how devolution might pan out over the next 20 years.

With today being the actual anniversary itself, I start with some of the more memorable achievements.

It’s entirely a matter of opinion what you’ll consider to be an “achievement” or not and most of what’s happened policy-wise – good and bad – is politically tied to Labour, Plaid and the Lib Dems. I’ve included things which have either been a first/set a standard for others to follow or otherwise made a noticeable improvement to the civic life, health, general wellbeing and economic prospects of Wales.

20. The Senedd Building (2006)

It was over-budget (though not to the same extent as the Scottish Parliament) and behind schedule, but it’s hard to argue against the fact the Senedd building is one of the finest pieces of modern architecture in Europe.

While the Welsh Government and Senedd might not have entirely lived up to the ideals of transparency the building was designed to embody in glass, slate and steel, it’s become a national icon and a focal point for national unity – whether that’s national celebrations, national mourning, protests and other forms of democratic participation like handing over petitions or hosting events.

19. Wales Coastal Path (2012)

It perhaps gives you a sense of how perceivably little devolution has delivered when I’m listing a footpath as one of its greatest achievements, but that would betray the logistical and practical difficulties in actually getting this done.

Not only has it made some of Wales’ most outstanding areas of natural beauty more accessible – and passing close to other important places of historical interest – it cost relatively little to build. In 2014 it was estimated coastal visitors (many, but not all, will have come to use the path) contributed £84million to local economies, no doubt boosted by this unique project. Bang for the buck.

18. Free School Breakfasts (2004)

This is one of the most popular policies in post-devolution Wales, demonstrated by the number of schools where the scheme is now so over-subscribed parents queue from the early hours of the morning to sign their children up.

The goals of the scheme are three-fold: provide a healthy start to the day, encourage children to arrive on time for school and improve concentration levels during lessons. Whether it’s actually achieved that or not is unclear (though school attendance rates have consistently improved), but by making it a universal benefit it reduces the bureaucracy involved and the possible stigma that would be attached to claiming a free meal.

17. Management of Single Payments to Farmers (1999-2020)

Not a particularly glamorous one, but it’s vital to the viability of many rural businesses. The Welsh Government’s record here compares favourably to most of the rest of the UK, with high proportions of payments paid (at least partly) on time. The scheme is, nevertheless, notoriously complicated and is set to be completely replaced after Brexit, which has caused concern amongst the farming community.

16. Scrapping School League Tables (2001) and SATS (2005)

Both school league tables and SATS tests were considered a burden, placing undue stress on teachers and pupils alike. The move was supposed to cut administration and allow schools to concentrate on the day job without looking over their shoulders and comparing themselves with schools that may or may not have an inbuilt advantage – such as a wealthier catchment area.

Both have made a comeback in the form of colour-coded school bandings and annual literacy and numeracy tests. However, the key differences are the former is focused more on identifying schools in need of additional support (to enable pupils to achieve expected standards) and the latter isn’t used to compare schools but to help teachers identify how well individual pupils are doing – both reasonable compromises.

15. Reopening the Vale of Glamorgan (2005) and Ebbw Vale (2008) rail lines to passengers

Both of these were a long time coming and were delivered under devolution. While the former provided a (near direct) rail link to Cardiff Airport, the latter has helped aid the gradual regeneration of Ebbw Vale since the closure of the steelworks, subsequently expanding Cardiff’s commuter belt more firmly into the Sirhowy and Ebbw valleys.

Both lines exceeded passenger figure expectations to the point where they’ve become victims of their own success, with overcrowding a frequent problem. Further service improvements have been promised as part of the South Wales Metro.

14. Foundation Phase (2008)

Adopting ideas from the Nordic countries, the Foundation Phase – learning through play and experience by 3-7-year-olds – was introduced as an alternative to desk-based learning, following concerns that children weren’t developing communication and social skills at a fast enough rate in order to make the most of more formal lessons.

The Foundation Phase has led to a lower pupil:staff ratio in early years education, while a review in 2015 found it was having a positive impact on pupils’ wellbeing, confidence and attitude to learning – particularly amongst boys. Of course, there are bad points to counter the good but one of the main problems in Welsh education policy since devolution has been a constant chopping and changing; the Foundation Phase is a rare example of permanence.

13. Student Support (1999-Ongoing)

The debate over whether the cost of university tuition should be borne by the students, the government or a mix of the two has very heavily come down on “the students should pay” side of the argument – even in Wales.

Through devolution, however, Wales has taken a relatively progressive approach to student support (whilst keeping tuition fees, unlike in Scotland). Leighton Andrews introduced an effective cap on tuition fees regardless of where a student chooses to study in 2010. Following the Diamond Review, means-tested student grants were reintroduced and additional support has been provided for postgraduates.

12. Food Hygiene Ratings Act (2013)

Another relatively simple measure which has had a big impact. It was one of the first laws introduced following the 2011 referendum and brought with it a “scores on the doors” system of marking the hygiene standards of outlets selling food.

The system has proven popular and has had an impact, with the Food Standards Agency reporting high levels of compliance with the scheme and a general improvement in food hygiene standards across the board – no doubt helped by the local and national press “naming and shaming” poor scoring outlets. Calls have now been made for a similar system to be introduced for disability access.

11. Nationalising Cardiff Airport (2012)

The £53million cost of the Welsh Government’s takeover aside, there’s no doubt in my opinion that if this didn’t happen, Cardiff Airport would probably be now on the brink of closure or downgraded to a freight and aircraft maintenance hub. Nationalisation has brought with it a sense of cautious optimism over the airport’s future and focused attention towards fixing some problems the previous owners long neglected.

Until recent announcements regarding Flybe, most of the news coming out of the airport has been positive, with passenger figures heading in the right direction, a long-haul carrier secured and a greater number of destinations offered. The next step will be securing air passenger duty powers in line with Scotland and Northern Ireland – though that’s unlikely to happen as things stand – and flights to North America.

10. Rejecting PFI (2001)

It’s completely wrong to say there’s no PFI in Wales – there’s a £2.8billion legacy on the public books and PFI has been remodelled and rebranded as the Mutual Investment Model. However, the Welsh Government placed strict limits on how and when PFI could be used. As a result, many of the problems regarding repayments currently facing English NHS Trusts and local authorities have been avoided in Wales. Keeping PFI on a tight leash hasn’t affected capital expenditure in Wales either; new schools and hospitals have been built across the country without this fiscal millstone around their necks.

9. Free Bus Travel for Older People (2002)

Wales was the first nation in the UK to introduce universal free bus travel for the over-60s, which has since been expanded to include people with certain mobility-limiting disabilities and injured veterans. Around 100million bus journeys are taken using the scheme every year, connecting people who might otherwise have been isolated within their communities. Nevertheless, changes are afoot and the long-term viability of the scheme has been questioned several times in light of cuts to bus subsidies by local authorities and the Welsh Government.

8. Public Smoking Ban (2007)

Another milestone for Wales was a ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces being introduced on April 2nd 2007. A number of additional measures to cut smoking rates have since been introduced at Welsh and UK level including bans on cigarette vending machines, bans on open display by retailers and bans on smoking in playgrounds and in vehicles carrying children. This looks set to be joined by a blanket ban on outdoor public smoking sometime in the next few years in Wales.

While the move has been blamed for pub closures, the proportion of people who smoke in Wales has declined to just 19% – which will have a knock-on beneficial impact on public health and health spending as attentions turn to the next big public health crisis: obesity.

7. Social Services & Wellbeing Act (2014)

Just three years after Wales secured law-making powers, they were put fully to the test with one of the most complicated, transformative and wide-ranging pieces of legislation introduced in the Senedd.

The Act, which came into force in 2016, made a number of changes to how people’s needs are assessed for social care, how people are charged for that care, as well as changes to services to protect young people from harm. You can also point to some negatives, with the Act being an example of Labour/Welsh Government’s tendency to introduce “Framework Bills” which are heavily reliant on regulations and orders to work instead of putting it all on the face of the legislation.

6. Securing full law-making powers (2011)

The 2011 referendum, despite the poor turnout, was convincingly in favour of giving the Senedd law-making powers wrongly denied to them by the Legislative Consent Order (LCO) system. The LCO system, in short, meant the Senedd had to ask for specific law-making powers in devolved areas on a case-by-case, line-by-line basis.

The reason why this was such a major achievement is that the 2011 referendum was on such a technical subject that managing to secure a convincing majority was a lot harder than it appeared to be at the time – perhaps in part helped by the shambolic No campaign. The law-making powers have proven their worth since then, with a few examples on this list.

5. Cap on Social Care Fees (2011) and an increase in capital limits for residential care (2016-2019)

As of April 2018, nobody receiving home care in Wales is charged more than £80-a-week. Funding and paying for social care remains a long-term challenge in Wales given our ageing population.

The system is complicated and hard to navigate, but – combined with a gradual increase in the capital limit for residential care to £50,000 – it provides a level of certainty on costs for some of Wales’ most vulnerable people. Also, if they’re receiving care at home it helps them maintain a level of independence by avoiding full-time residential care or lengthy hospital stays.

4. Plastic Bag Charge (2011)

Another example of a small change in policy making a big difference. When the sight of plastic bags from supermarkets being blown about in the street used to be commonplace, it’s now very rare and taking reusable bags with us when shopping has become an easy habit for the public to adopt due to the inconvenience of paying a fee.

Since the introduction of a charge on single-use plastic bags, their use in Wales has declined by anything between 70-90%. Some supermarkets – like Lidl – are now completely phasing-out single-use bags. Based on the success of the single-use bag charge, calls have been made to introduce a fee or charge for single-use coffee and hot drinks cups and/or a return deposit scheme for plastic bottles and cans.

3. Human Transplantation Act 2013 (Opt-Out Organ Donation)

The jury’s still out on whether this Act has actually resulted in an increase in viable organ donations; the early signs are that it hasn’t actually lead to an increase in donations, but it has lead to an increase in consents. Donations are, of course, dependent on tissue compatibility and other medical tests.

It isn’t necessarily the Act itself that was the achievement here, but the way in which it was approached by AMs. It marked a high-point in Senedd debate, with supporters and opponents of the legislation dealing with a very controversial and divisive subject in a highly respectful and sensitive manner which put Westminster to shame. The tone of debate in Cardiff Bay has since declined, but this was a sign that AMs – for all their faults – are more than capable of being world-class legislators when they put their minds to it.

2. Recycling (1999-Ongoing)

Wales’ recycling record is genuinely world-class and only the likes of Germany can really say they’re doing better than we are – which is a huge achievement. Despite the recent figures showing a surprise decline in recycling rates, the goal for Wales to hit a 70% recycling rate by 2025 looks set to be met early by some councils.

Most of the credit deserves to go to local authorities, but the vision has been lead from the top. This is an example of where closer working and shared goals between different tiers of government can produce results. Labour’s shade of green has always been a little mucky. On this, however, they can say they’ve made a real difference. With some other policy suggestions coming in – like a greater producer responsibility for recycling – there’s a real chance that Wales will become one of the first zero-waste nations.

1. Abolishing Prescription Charges (2007)

This is the single policy your average person in the street – whether they care about the Senedd or not – will immediately associate with Welsh devolution. The chances are the majority of them will tell you it’s a good idea too.

A large proportion of the Welsh population was eligible for free prescriptions anyway – whether through age or illness/disability. The move effectively removed a tax on illness; prescription charges remain in place in England and currently stand at £9-per-item. While you can certainly argue that it’s cut off an income stream for the NHS in a time of public spending cuts, like many other universal benefits it’s also cut administration and bureaucracy costs.

Scrapping the policy would likely prove very unpopular, though you could easily see the system change to exclude common over-the-counter medicines – as called for by the Senedd’s Public Accounts Committee.

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