20 @ 20: Devolution’s 20 Biggest Failures

Following a look at the achievements and all the associated back-slapping, it’s time to look at the….not so glorious moments – and I can tell you there were plenty to choose from, probably too many.

Like the achievements, it’s a matter of personal opinion as to what you would consider to be a “failure” and most of it is tied to Labour, Plaid and the Lib Dems – though there’s a minority out there (even some supposed nationalists) who will consider absolutely anything the Senedd does to be wrong.

I’ve included things which have either failed to meet original intentions, seen little to no positive progress since 1999 (or even gone backwards), created a negative impression of devolution or the Senedd, demonstrate failures in governance and oversight, as well as anything that will have had a negative impact on the civic life, health, general wellbeing and economic prospects of Wales.

20. The First Minister Vote (2016)

At the first meeting following an election, AMs have to nominate a First Minister. With 29 seats, Labour’s Carwyn Jones was the only realistic option – but the opposition had other ideas. In a complete non sequitur, Plaid Cymru, the Conservatives and UKIP decided Leanne Wood should be First Minister with her 12 seats.

Symbolically, it was to let Labour know they didn’t have a majority and would have to work with other parties – eventually leading to a temporary consultative agreement between Labour and Plaid, as well as Kirsty Williams joining the Welsh Government in a coalition-that’s-not-a-coalition (later joined by Dafydd Elis-Thomas). But it also very nearly lead to a Plaid-Tory-UKIP coalition by accident and was a pointless attention-seeking stunt. It all could’ve been negotiated in good time and there were lessons for all sides, though that lost week or so could’ve proven crucial in the EU referendum campaign.

19. Unchecked expansion of the Third Sector (Ongoing)

I’m not as vociferously opposed to the Third Sector (also known as the voluntary/charity/non-profit sector) as other commentators. However, since the Bonfire of the Quangos in the early 2000s, the Third Sector has replaced them as another layer of mostly unaccountable organisations which receive large sums of public funding each year to attempt to solve problems which are fundamentally the core reason for their existence.

My criticism would be the number of organisations more than oversight as they’re vital to represent the interests of minorities and other under pressure groups. We have an awful lot of duplication, where several Third Sector organisations (though at heart they’re businesses with a friendlier face) compete on the same turf for a share of the same pot of money. It’s also meant organisations which are supposed to represent the “victims” of government policy have to (or in many cases don’t) actively campaign against the same government which funds them to a certain degree. It’s not a healthy relationship.

18. Local Health Boards & NHS Trusts (2003-2009)

Wales currently has seven health boards and four All-Wales trusts (Velindre, Ambulance Service, Public Health Wales, Health Education & Improvement). Between 2003-2009 we had TWENTY TWO local health boards – one for each local authority (alongside several regional trusts) – and seven all-Wales trusts. This unwieldy health management meant different local authorities had different health boards whilst being within the same regional trust. While the intention was to bring decision-making closer to communities, it ultimately lead to expertise being spread thinly and health boards protecting their own interests. Scrapping them after five/six years was nothing less than an embarrassing U-turn.

17. The Active Travel Act (2013)

It’s too early to completely write this one off now that (as of 2019) there’s a Deputy Economy Minister in place who lives and breathes cycling (Lee Waters), but the signs are – six years after it was passed – that the Act will fail to be approached in the the intended spirit most places outside Cardiff. It’s another case of the road to hell being paved with good intentions (excuse the pun).

The main idea was for councils to map out utility cycling networks in urban areas and then put forward bids for funding. The mapping and bidding exercises (apart from a few councils) haven’t been taken as seriously as the Welsh Government hoped because the car remains king – particularly in rural areas and anywhere where there’s large housing developments. To date, there’s no sign of a modal shift to cycling and walking, while amongst children walking and cycling rates have actually fallen.

16. The Attempted Ban on Public Vaping (2015)

One of the more contentious proposals in the Fourth Senedd’s Public Health Bill was a ban on vaping/e-cigarettes in public. Vaping has taken off as a less lung-destroying way to deliver nicotine. However, to the then Health Minister, Mark Drakeford, it was just another nasty habit for a paternalistic Welsh Labour party to wag their fingers at.

It was a perfect example of policy-based evidence making, with reports cherry-picked to suit the government’s public health narrative. The government cited report after report suggesting vaping was a gateway to tobacco and was a public health grey area in which the long-term effects weren’t fully understood. This was despite clear evidence from health  and lung disease specialists that vaping produces primarily water vapour and little else – and harmful “passive vaping”, which the Bill was trying to address, doesn’t even exist.

15. The Democratic People’s Republic of Carmarthenshire (2010-Ongoing)

While tin pot dictator Mark James’ tyrannical rule is set to end this summer, he’s a monster largely of the Senedd’s creation, with Carmarthenshire councillors playing the supporting role of Igor. It’s probably political. Labour and Plaid Cymru have different attitudes on the need for action in the county depending on who’s in power with the shadowy “Independents” at a particular time.

The Welsh Government were quick to act when Anglesey Council went off the rails. However, when Carmarthenshire used taxpayers money to back a lawsuit against a member of the public (contrary to Welsh Government regulations), thumbed their nose at the Wales Audit Office, wiped their backsides with a democratic improvement programme, entered into dodgy pension schemes and now caused serious – possibly terminal – damage to the Swansea City Region, the silence from Cardiff Bay has largely been, and remains, deafening.

14. Access to GPs (Ongoing)

While some GPs have moved into the 2000s and offer an online appointment booking system, for many people it’s a familiar routine of ringing a few hundred times before 9 am, hoping to get through and then being told you might get an appointment two days later. The service in some parts of Wales is near breaking point and while many practices are moving into modern “Primary Care Centres”, the GP workforce is teetering near a cliff edge due to the imminent retirement of a large number of them, as well as a switch by many to part-time working.

Part of this is our problem. You don’t need to see a doctor for every minor health issue and despite what you might look up online or read in The Daily Mail you probably don’t have cancer. Pharmacists receive similar training to doctors and are also medicines experts – if you really need a doctor they’ll probably tell you that you do.

13. Natural Resources Wales (2016-Ongoing)

It was supposed to a simple merger of three organisations – the Countryside Council, Forestry Commission and Environment Agency. While the merger went off without a hitch in 2013, the combination of three very different working cultures quickly brought with it serious administrative problems. As of 2019, the body’s accounts have been qualified by the Wales Audit Office three years in a row following highly questionable commercial deals, while there’ve been reports of serious morale issues amongst staff.

Changes are promised under the organisation’s new leadership, but calls are already being made to separate the body’s commercial and regulatory functions. Doh!

12. School PISA Performance & Reaction (2007-Ongoing)

PISA tests are an international examination overseen by the OECD which participating nations use to compare the performance of educational systems. The PISA exam is very different from the types of exams students normally sit as it tests the practical application of knowledge gained in the classroom, not just the theory.

Although Wales recovered slightly in 2016, the slide in performance by Welsh schools as emerging economies joined the tests has lead to an awful long of hand-wringing and portents of doom on Welsh economic chances. In reality, the tests don’t matter very much; there’s absolutely no correlation between PISA performance and higher economic productivity. The next set of results are due at the end of 2019 and you can bet it’ll be the same old story. The recent news that PISA targets have been dropped by Kirsty Williams is a signal for how that’s going to go.

11. The Brain Drain (1999-Ongoing)

I covered this in more detail during last year’s posts on the economy, so I won’t say much.

In terms of producing graduates and graduate-level workers, Wales has a good track record and compares favourably with most of the UK. Keeping them has proven to be a significant challenge.

Graduates tend to (but not always) stay fairly close to where they graduate. While I held up student support as being progressive since devolution – and there’s no reason to limit people’s choice of university – a hell of a lot of our best and brightest ending up giving their all for somewhere else. To make matters worse, outside the public sector and academia there’s mass graduate underemployment in Wales. It’s a criminal waste of talent.

10. The Welsh Baccalaureate (2015-Ongoing)

Another one of these “well-intentioned schemes that haven’t turned out as expected”. The recent inquiry by the Senedd’s Children & Young People Committee revealed the Welsh Bacc. isn’t held in particularly high esteem by students, some teachers and employers alike, namely because it’s too complicated and its relevance has been questioned.

If we had developed the Welsh Baccalaureate as an equivalent to the French baccalauréat or even the International Baccalaureate (which is used by some private schools) that would perhaps be something worthy of the name. What we ended up with was a re-branding and beefing up of Curriculum 2000’s “Key Skills” – which were themselves a load of bollocks – and a few additional elements added for padding. With the new curriculum coming in, it’s time to consider whether it needs another major reform to make it more coherent or scrapping altogether.

9. The Richard Commission (2004)

The Richard Commission was set up to review the National Assembly’s powers and electoral arrangements following a lacklustre first term which very nearly saw the institution collapse. AMs spent most of  their time ignobly debating the most esoteric regulations imaginable to pointless levels of detail (i.e. potato seeds). The Richard Commission suggested increasing the size of the Senedd to 80 AMs, introducing single transferrable vote as well as full law-making and partial tax-varying powers.

The proposals were ultimately watered down to form the Government of Wales Act 2006. We could’ve had the right number of AMs. We could’ve had the scrutiny capacity for tax-varying powers and the devolution of criminal justice and broadcasting. We could’ve had electoral reform. It was all shelved and while it took a referendum and a number of other UK Acts to get somewhere close to the report’s recommendations, 15 years on we’re still largely arguing about the same things.

8. The Decline of the Welsh Media (1999-Ongoing)

When the Senedd was first established, most news organisations had a permanent presence in Cardiff Bay. Aside from broadcasters and the occasional freelancer or political editor, I doubt it’s even a half the strength it used to be. As a result, there’s confusion over what the Senedd does (with an associated problem that the Senedd has failed to capture the imagination of the Welsh public) and until the Local Democracy Reporting Scheme, coverage of local government in Wales barely existed beyond controversies and scandals.

There are well-highlighted issues around both how (and how often) Wales is portrayed in the mainstream (UK) media. It misses the bigger picture within Wales though. I’ve been doing some work on this (due to be published this autumn). The newspaper circulation figures I’ve seen are apocalyptic. Although the UK-wide picture isn’t great either, I can say with some confidence there probably won’t be any Welsh print newspapers within 10-15 years without dramatic changes.

While most of the slack is being picked up online, I can only speak for myself but far from being a professional well-funded outfit, Senedd Home has reduced me to living like a monk for most of the year and destroyed my personal life. It’s also stuck in a credibility/snobbery gap where nothing on there will ever be fully considered journalism. Despite this, in terms of the range of content directly relating to the Senedd and devolution, Senedd Home goes toe-to-toe with any professional outlet, including the BBC from time to time (and anyone who knows me will tell you I’m not one for idle boasts). I’m not proud. I’m embarrassed – sad and angry even – and you should be too.

7. The Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales – RIFW (2012)

Although Natural Resources Wales are doing their best to take the crown, the RIFW scandal is probably the worst single failure of governance in post-devolution Wales. It has a mix of everything: poor civil service oversight, a large sum of public money lost, being taken advantage of by a private company and speculators, the ineptitude of one of these shadowy committees and working groups whose members lack the prerequisite skills. I could go on, but the whole mess is available to read through here.

6. Child & Adolescent Mental Health (1999-Ongoing)

Nearly every incoming member of the Welsh Youth Parliament put mental health as one of their top priorities with good reason. Whenever Ministers have been pressed on this by AMs, what they get back is a list of new investments and supposed improvements to waiting times, but if the system is broken in the first place no amount of money can fix it. Another battle here has been over the lack of facilities for children and teenagers with eating disorders, who often have to travel hundreds of miles to receive treatment. Add to this pressures caused by the education system and social media and we’re in danger of creating a dysfunctional generation who, in the medium to long-term, will be seen to have been let down in what has to be one of Wales’ hidden national disgraces.

5. The Newport M4 Question (1999-Ongoing)

Devolution was established so we could solve our own problems without waiting for London – or unelected mandarins in Cathays Park working for unelected Welsh Secretaries – to sort them out for us. While this particular issue was discussed long before the Senedd was established, it’s been two decades of wasted time, with the M4 around Newport probably becoming the most studied and consulted-upon road project in UK history.

It does look like this is going to be answered one way or another in the next few weeks (and that answer was “no”), but it’s one of these “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situations. If it’s approved, it throws into question the Senedd’s commitment to climate change and the Future Generations Act. If it’s rejected without a coherent and popular alternative proposal (which will no doubt require another lengthy round of consultation and inquiry), then the problems are likely to get worse and the business community will lose confidence in the Senedd’s ability to deliver major infrastructure projects.

Of course, if the project was approved 10-15 years ago it would’ve been a £400-500million project, not a £1.7+billion one. Indecisiveness, delays and thumb-twiddling cost money – something all AMs and civil servants desperately need to learn.

4. The EU Referendum Campaign (2016)

The Welsh “Leave” vote was in part a collective failure by the Welsh political class. While there was always an uphill battle against the right-wing UK media machine (pointing back to #8), the Remain campaign was woeful, being heavily Cardiff and Fro Gymraeg centric – I remember not receiving any campaign literature until the day before the referendum; all I had to go on was the referendum work I was doing for Oggy Bloggy Ogwr at the time and the TV debates. God knows what everyone else did.

What the referendum told us is that the Welsh political class has gradually lost the ability to speak for and listen to “Welsh Wales”: the post-industrial constituencies along the M4 and A465 corridors. That poses a serious long-term challenge for devolution.

It was a culmination of years of seemingly wasted EU funding and a smug, out-of-touch Cardiff Bay Bubble who thought people would never vote against what they considered to be the people’s own interests. You can point to the Welsh General Election a few weeks earlier causing logistical and campaign resource problems, but it’s no excuse as the same thing applies to Scotland and Northern Ireland.

While the Welsh Government and Senedd’s reaction to Brexit has been largely on point and the result isn’t entirely their fault, they have to accept they played their part.

3. Williams Commission/Local Government Reform (2014-Ongoing)

22 unitary local authorities are clearly too many in Wales….depending on who you ask. The problem is nobody has actually followed through on the many proposals to change this. First, it was mergers this way, then it was mergers that way, now the mergers seem to be off and it’s regional working….and we’re right back where we started.

As far as I know, absolutely nothing has come of the Williams Commission despite the heat and light generated by it. The flowcharts for responsibilities and policies in the report which outlined all the different local, regional and national organisations were migraine-inducing….yet nothing’s been done. If anything, all the Williams Commission and its fallout have told us is that through a collective huffing and puffing, the local government lobby has ensured the report will be locked away in a drawer somewhere. If only we had a government which actually governs and is willing to make unpopular decisions.

I’ll stick my neck out and predict, firstly, that there’ll be a struggle to hit the 2018 “deadline”. This Welsh Government are small-c conservatives who don’t have the cojones to do anything this drastic (by their standards), and despite the language of determination coming from Cathays Park, might find opposition from within local government too much to handle.

 

“…Any compromise will be justified on cost grounds, following successful lobbying from various public bodies, WLGA and the bigger local authorities in the south and west. We’ll still have 900+ public bodies, and we’ll return to this again in 15-20 years time, because simple mergers won’t solve the complexity problem and won’t improve scrutiny.

 

“They correctly saw what the problem was, they formed a committee, they chickened out of making the big calls.  ‘How Wales works’ in a nutshell.”
Oggy Bloggy Ogwr, January 2014

 

2. Productivity & In-Work Poverty (1999-Ongoing)

You’ll all know that Wales’ gross value added (GVA) has consistently fallen since 1999 to around 72% of the UK average. And the birds go tweet. It was falling – and at a much sharper pace – long before 1999 but that fact is often conveniently ignored.

Of course, GVA doesn’t measure wealth, it measures economic productivity – there’s a difference and you can’t say “Wales is the poorest part of the UK” by looking at GVA alone; in fact when it comes to household wealth, Wales is doing better than you would otherwise expect. Poverty rates have generally fallen, though the burden is shifting from the old to low-income working households and children growing up in such households.

Rhodri Morgan (in)famously set a target of Wales hitting 90% of the UK’s average GVA by 2010. We failed spectacularly. Seeing as there’s no chance in hell of closing the gap – because the reason the UK average is so out of reach is due to the rest of the UK adapting to the service economy far better and faster than Wales (and centralising  those functions in Edinburgh and SE England) – we’ve given up on economic growth (in the traditional sense) by stealth.

There’s now talk of the foundational economy, the green economy, digital economy and the circular economy – in essence making the most of what we’ve got because we’ve run out of other ideas. Maybe that’s a good thing.

1. Hospital Waiting Times (1999-Ongoing)

Chances are that if you’re waiting for an ambulance (and not near death’s door), waiting to be unloaded from an ambulance or waiting for an elective appointment you’re going to be waiting far, far longer in Wales than any other part of the UK – and the situation has overall gotten gradually worse since 1999.

This isn’t true for all secondary healthcare services – waiting times for cancer treatment, for example, have improved – but it’s probably the one thing that people will pick out as the biggest failure of devolution, both in terms of Labour’s management and opposition scrutiny (it’s easy to get angry about something, but more difficult to come up with a solution). Despite this, the Welsh Government and health boards continue to press ahead with what appear to be fundamentally illogical policies like reducing the number of hospital beds and A&E departments “to improve patient flow”, when the reality is it’s being done for training reasons (to ensure junior doctors see a minimum number of patients to practice medicine safely in the future), to account for a lack of specialist staff and the introduction of next-generation health technologies.

If you want an anecdote, about two years ago I was sitting in a waiting area at the Princess of Wales Hospital and saw an elderly man – who could barely walk unaided – being told there was a 38-week wait for whatever appointment he was seeking. That doesn’t mean he would’ve actually waited that long, but that’s quite a common experience for many people and it tends to be in the departments which don’t treat urgent cases but can certainly impact a person’s quality of life (rheumatology, urology, dermatology etc.).

That’s why I’m surprised so many older people move to Wales because I can’t think of a worse place to live if you’re elderly or have a chronic non-life threatening disease.

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