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Sunday, 31 August 2014

Senedd Watch - August 2014

  • Friends of the Earth Cymru launched a legal challenge against the Welsh Government's decision to approve an M4 bypass of Newport at the expense of an alternative “Blue Route”. Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), said she “expected a challenge” as part of the “reality of the world we work in”. She later said that, “As far as I'm concerned we will be going ahead”.
  • Unison are due to ballot NHS Wales staff members on industrial action after they were offered a £160 lump sum in lieu of a 1% pay rise by the Welsh Government. Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), said the offer was “fair”, with the lowest-paid NHS staff being paid a £7.65 per hour “living wage” from September 2014.
  • The First Minister attended a commemorative service in Glasgow on 4th August to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of British Empire involvement in the First World War. He said the war, “had monumental consequences that rippled throughout our history”.
  • Jonathan Edwards MP (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) launched Plaid Cymru's “Get Wales on Track” campaign for Wales to receive a devolved proportion of the budget for the High Speed 2 project in England - estimated to be between £2-4billion.
  • The National Assembly's Health Committee wrote to the Welsh Government recommending an regulator to oversee NHS complaints due to a defensive culture within the health service and worries that staff “feared victimisation” for raising concerns. Committee chair, David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) said, Those making complaints....should feel able to do so without fear that their careers or care could be adversely affected as a consequence."
  • The Wales Audit Office will investigate National Dance Company accounts after a confidential internal report revealed concerns over how their £850,000 per year funding from the Arts Council of Wales was being spent, with criticism aimed at board level decision-making.
  • An Ofcom report said that Wales was "catching up" to the rest of the UK in terms of superfast broadband, with 58% of Wales covered compared to 78% of the UK (on average). However, only three quarters of small and medium enterprises were online, with criticism of unreliable internet connections.
  • A BBC Wales investigation revealed a combined £300,000 had been spent by the Welsh and UK governments as a result of three Welsh laws being referred to the UK Supreme Court. Two of those cases were won by the Welsh Government, who said it was "evidence that the current devolution settlement urgently needs reform".
  • Lindsay Whittle AM (Plaid, South Wales East) warned consumers to look out for counterfeit alcohol after a Freedom of Information request revealed tens of thousands of pounds of counterfeit alcohol was being recovered and seized by trading standards officers. He said, "counterfeit tobacco and alcohol an have a serious impact on bone fide businesses which follow the rules."
  • Unemployment continued to fall in Wales. In the three months to June 2014 it fell by 3,000, with the unemployment rate at 6.7%.
  • Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central) called for a rescheduling of First Ministers Questions to broaden its appeal, saying "transparency and scrutiny are questionable at the least". The Assembly's Business Committee had undertaken a review of Assembly procedures, while Welsh Labour said the Conservative leader's criticisms "said more about their (Tories) lack of ability to be an effective opposition."
  • The A-Level A*-E pass rate fell slightly compared to 2013 from 97.6% to 97.5%, however the number of A*& A grades rose from 22.9% to 23.3%. Girls continued to outperformed boys except at A* grade, and the pass rates remained lower than the England, Wales and Northern Ireland average. (98* A*-E grades, 26% A*& A grades)
  • The All-Wales Medicines Strategy Group approved the use of a cannabis-based treatment for multiple sclerosis, Sativex. As a result, Wales will become the first part of the UK to do so. The Health Minister said he hopes the drug will "help ease the suffering of some of those who have to live with....MS".
  • A group of 70 businesses criticised the First Minister after a letter sent to him pushing for an extension to small business rate relief hadn't been replied to. Byron Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) said Welsh Ministers had the power to boost high street footfall, but "have announced almost nothing".
  • The Welsh Liberal Democrats pledged to scrap Severn Bridge tolls once its current debt had been paid off if they were returned to power in Westminster in 2015. They estimate the annual cost would be £15million, but would boost the south Wales economy by £107million.
  • The latest gender pay gap figures revealed that while the Welsh gap was smaller than the UK average, there was still a £3,771 per year gap between male and female executives. The Chartered Institute of Management said the pay gap "cannot be justified".
  • A joint poll by Cardiff and Edinburgh universities revealed that Welsh people were more likely to adopt a conciliatory approach to Scotland regardless of the outcome of September's independence referendum. 48% of Welsh respondents supported a cut to the Scottish budget if they vote no compared to 56% of English.
  • The gap in the number of pupils receiving at least 5 A*-C grades at GCSE between Wales and England/Northern Ireland closed by 0.2% in 2014. The overall A*-C pass rate of 66.6% was the highest achieved in post-devolution Wales, with improved performance at higher grades. Like A-Levels, girls continue to outperform boys.
  • Student leaders expressed shock at a Welsh Government decision to cut student hardship funds. The Welsh Government blamed UK Government cuts and said higher tuition fees meant universities could now fund similar schemes themselves.
  • Plaid Cymru and leading tourism bodies called for a boost to the Welsh Government's £7million Visit Wales budget, as it stands compared to £47million for the Scottish equivalent and is only £1million more than Jersey's. The Welsh Government said the £7million was “misleading” and the real figure was closer to £20million.

Projects announced in August include : £1.25million towards the creation of Welsh language centres to promote its use in social settings; a provisional five-year deal to bring MotoGP to a proposed motor sports park in Blaenau Gwent; a boost in funding for palliative care hospices and a £4million investment in the ambulance fleet to improve patient comfort and service reliability.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

"Thank you for flying Ieuan Air...."

Poor value for money? Or vital transport link?
The Anglesey-Cardiff "Ieuan Air" service has its critics.
(Pic : Wales Online)

The direct air service between Cardiff and Anglesey has been a political football since it was first introduced. Some consider it a vital public service air link; others consider it a complete waste of money.

The National Assembly's Public Accounts Committee undertook a short inquiry into its future role, as well as evaluating its current commercial performance due to the high levels of public subsidy it receives and falls in passenger numbers (pdf).

The Committee's summarised recommendations were that :
  • Data collection should be improved - preferably using an independent source - to avoid discrepancies between what the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and airline operators report.
  • The Welsh Government should undertake research on who uses the air-link and why, as well as research into the long-term passenger number trends.
  • Any future tender for the air-link should include comprehensive marketing plans, and the Welsh Government should try to attract as many bidders as possible in order to maximise the benefits and opportunities of the air-link.

Background & Current Performance

£9million has been spent on the air link since 2007, including
£1.5million on terminal facilities at RAF Valley.
(Pic :
The Anglesey-Cardiff air-link was established in May 2007 (before Ieuan Wyn Jones even became a government minister), and is currently operated by two companies. The marketing and ticket booking services are provided by Manx company, Citywing, while the air service itself is provided by Links Air, based on Humberside. The current contract to provide the service runs until December 2014. The service runs twice a day in both directions during weekdays.

The Welsh Government subsidises the service under the EU's Public Service Obligation (PSO) rules, which allows governments to subsidise services that are key to economic development but are otherwise commercial unviable. The subsidy currently amounts to £1.2million per year.

The Ministry of Defence are also involved as they run the RAF Valley terminus of the flight. Anglesey Council and a company called Europa also fund/run the terminal services at the airbase.

The total cost of the air service from May 2007 to March 2013 was just over £9million. This sum includes the £1.5million to build the passenger terminal at RAF Valley and various grants to Anglesey Council.

65,703 passengers used the service over the same time period, and
the subsidy per passenger is £86. Although passenger numbers exceeded expectations in the first two years, they've since declined by 12.5% between 2011-2013.

There were differences between the passenger numbers reported by the CAA and those provided by the Welsh Government (via the service operator) – the latter's numbers being higher than the CAA's. However, since 2012 these discrepancies have become smaller and didn't cause the Committee any great concern.

As for the reasons why passenger numbers are falling, the University of South Wales' Martin Evans said that passengers were "price sensitive" and even the slightest increase in fares put them off. The Welsh Government, however, pointed towards figures that showed an increase in the number of advanced bookings and overall passenger numbers.

The Welsh Government have commissioned ARUP to review the marketing of the air service, fares strategy and support to maximise passenger numbers. The contract currently grants the operators £20-25,000 per year to market the service. The Committee believe more needs to be done - such as advertising connecting bus services - and all of that should be part of the tendering process.

In terms of the type of passenger, it was said between half and two-thirds of passengers were business passengers, but there was no data on how many of these were public sector workers. The Committee were concerned because public sector journeys would ultimately be paid for entirely by taxpayers, weakening the subsidy's value for money case.

With regard value for money, there hasn't been an evaluation of the benefits of the air service since 2008, and without this information it might be more difficult for the Welsh Government to justify further subsidy. Some of this will be explored further in the ARUP review, which will give a better idea of who uses the service and why, but it was argued it might be difficult to tie economic data to the service.

The Contract

Following the 2011 Cork air crash, there've been concerns raised
at EU level about "virtual airline" arrangements for air services.
(Pic : RTE)

There's a slightly complicated back story as to how the current operators got the franchise.

When the contract was up for re-tender in 2010, the only bidder was Highland Airways. But because the Welsh Government had concerns over the financial stability of the company, they rejected Highland Airways offer and put out an "emergency tender" which was awarded to Manx2.

However, because Manx2 were a "virtual airline" (they outsource all operational roles), this fell foul of EU PSO rules, meaning another company had to be on board at the same time – hence why there are two companies involved in running the air link.

As for the relevance of this, an accident at Cork Airport in February 2011 – which killed 6 people – involved an aircraft operated by the same company Manx2 used to provide the Anglesey-Cardiff link (FLM). The company has since had its aviation accreditation withdrawn, and this dual-company arrangement has been flagged up to the European Commission as a concern which should be taken into consideration when awarding any new Anglesey-Cardiff contract in December.

The Committee also had concerns about the timing of the tender and contract award, which is supposed to go out (quite literally) now if it's going to be awarded in December. The Committee were worried that the timescales are too tight and there's little room for contingencies.

The Future of the Air-Link

Due to MOD restrictions, the air link can only operate 5 days a week.
(Pic : Royal Air Force)
The Welsh Government haven't given a clear commitment on whether the service will be re-tendered or not. However, the Committee come up with several potential options for any future services.
  • Increasing the size of the aircraft – The current aircraft has 18 seats, but previous tenders included 29-50 seater aircraft. The size of the aircraft was reduced by the Welsh Government due to concerns over air passenger duty and because RAF Valley doesn't meet UK guidelines for passenger aircraft bigger than 18 seats. Increasing the size of the aircraft would mean fewer passengers would be turned away and, if marketed correctly, could boost incomes and make it more commercially viable.
  • More stops? – This might mean adding an extra stop or two (Harwarden in Flintshire and Caernarfon airport were mooted). Harwarden was ruled out due to competition from rail, while Caernarfon would need lots of work to bring it up to spec. A third stop could also put off passengers as it would increase journey times.
  • 7 day a week service – At the moment only a 5 day service is possible due to military restrictions, and any moves to change this will need to be discussed with the RAF.
  • Changes to state aid rules – PSO rules were recently changed which mean there are fewer constraints on what the Welsh Government can or can't do. An example was given where the Cardiff-Anglesey aircraft could be used to make commercial flights from Cardiff-Paris in the downtime between Anglesey flights.

A bit of afters

The inquiry has been criticised for being "too simplistic", and it failed to
draw comparisons with other PSO services in the UK and rest of Europe.
(Pic : via Wikipedia)
As you might've heard, Committee member Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East)  got a bit shirty, describing the inquiry as "superficial and simplistic". The Committee only called four witnesses - who all gave evidence on a single day – and received just five pieces of written evidence, three of which were from the same person. That's not unusual for a "short inquiry".

I've read my fair share of committee reports over the last three years or so. The lack of any comparison with other PSO services in the UK (like those in the Scottish Highlands & Islands) was a glaring omission. Mike Hedges was right. I don't think it would've really changed the overall conclusions, but without those comparisons it's hard to say whether the air link is truly under-performing or not.

The Lib Dems have long called for the service to be scrapped, and chimed in again this time, describing the air link as "wasteful and polluting".

The air link currently reduces the NW Wales-Cardiff journey time from 4-5 hours (by car or train) to around 90 minutes. If the service were well-used it could be considered an absolute bargain. The £1.2million per year saved by scrapping the service would do diddly squat to improve north-south transport links, and the Lib Dems have consistently failed to say what they would do with such an enormous bounty. The cost of doubling the Wrexham-Chester railway line is £44million alone.

If money were no object, ideally we would build a floating runway in the Menai Straits off Bangor. That would be the optimum place for a NW Wales-Cardiff air link, and being right next to Snowdonia should provide a steady stream of tourist traffic too. However, like it or not, RAF Valley – despite being poorly located – is the only suitable facility.

It looks as though the air link has an uncertain future, and criticisms about its performance stand up. There's just a danger that through this inquiry we only know the price of it whilst ignoring its value.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Aberconwy Funnel-Bebb Spider

"For there is always something down there,
in the dark, waiting to come out...."
(6th August - Devolution : The Failures) : "In fact, blogging's still quite dangerous - even in Wales - and you leave yourself open to getting into disputes when you didn't need to."

I don't like "blogging about blogging", but due to a row between the slightly off-the-wall Conwy County-based blog, Thoughts of Oscar, and the local Conservative MP Guto Bebb my hand's been forced. It's also been covered in depth by National Left and Miserable Old Fart.

From the outset, I doubt myself and whoever's behind the Thoughts of Oscar blog would agree on anything politically. If someone in the Welsh blogosphere is coming under unjustified attack though, we should do everything we can to support each other as we're going out on a limb through doing this. All for one and one for all etc.

Here's a brief overview of what's happened :
  • Thoughts of Oscar published an open letter by "C. Thomas" which states (correctly) that Guto Bebb MP is one of the staunchest supporters of Israel in Westminster; had received donations from Russian energy oligarch (and Tory donor), Alexander Temerko; had asked parliamentary questions on Israel; and had a few dealings with pro-Israeli lobbying organisations. The author questioned Guto's commitment to his constituents, and dealings with Israelis due to the Gaza conflict.
  • Guto Bebb defended his support for Israel in the Daily Post/Western Mail and Golwg360, and said he didn't wish to "dignify (the open letter) with a comment". Bebb also claimed via Twitter that the Western Mail's political editor, David Williamson, was running a story "based on web libel".
  • Cardiff-based Thomas Simon solicitors sent a legal letter to the author of Thoughts of Oscar (and others) – which Guto Bebb published – refuting several of the points made in the open letter such as : denying donations were related to pro-Israeli views; visits to Israel were purely business; that Guto didn't vote to send troops to Syria (he did vote in favour of military action though, which could've resulted in the use of British military personnel in/over Syria); and inferring that four star Israeli hotels aren't luxury.
  • The solicitors requested that the open letter be taken down immediately (it's still up as of today) and the author of the letter will have 5 working days to substantiate its content. Thoughts of Oscar believes there's a good chance they'll have to close the blog and Twitter account due to the legal threat hanging over them.

So Guto said he considers the open letter to be potentially libellous - a very serious accusation.There will probably be parallels made with Jacqui Thompson (Carmarthenshire Planning), but – and I hope Jacqui doesn't mind me saying this – Bebb has an even weaker case than Mark James.

Looking at this dispassionately - putting aside views on the Gaza crisis for a moment - the open letter was well-researched. All of the sources used in the open letter were credible : The Guardian, Western Mail, Freedom of Information requests and even Guto Bebb himself..
Most of it was left open to interpretation, with no direct accusations of wrong-doing.

For example, the open letter didn't say the Alexander Temerko donation was specifically related to Bebb's support for Israel, just that Temerko has made donations to pro-Israeli MPs. People were left to make their own minds up, though it's hard to tell if it counts as innuendo or not. It's only seems defamatory if you're deliberately looking for/interpreting things as being defamatory remarks.

Defamation laws were updated in the Defamation Act 2013. Three key defences include :
  • Truth – As said, pretty much everything in the open letter was based on information from reliable sources. Guto (or, more accurately, his legal advisers) didn't once publicly deny anything that the letter contained, only disputing the interpretation (what Miserable Old Fart described as "the minutiae") - like the number of stars a hotel has.
  • Honest Opinion/Fair Comment – The letter was an opinion piece regarding a highly-contentious issue. You could argue that the final paragraph damages Guto Bebb's reputation as an MP, but you can – and should in a democracy – consider it a constituent expressing dissatisfaction with the performance of their elected representative, and bringing into question some of their professional associations. These are things we should all have a right to know and do. In fairness, it appears Guto Bebb has always been keen to be transparent - except this.
  • Publication in the public interest – Of course it was. Anything a politician does in relation to their job or representative role is in the public interest and, as said, all of the details in the open letter were covered extensively by several credible sources, then wrapped up neatly in a single open letter. There were no personal insults and no attacks on Guto's character.

The legal letter was, effectively, an indirect reply to everything contained in open letter – a "right of reply" if you will. However, I don't know why Guto or his staff didn't write the rebuttal of a 450-word letter themselves instead of hiring a group of legal professionals to nit-pick. Surely Guto and his staff know what he has or hasn't done and can explain that on request?

There's absolutely no need to call for anyone to remove any blog or shut anything down. If Guto has a right to express his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so does everyone else.

MPs – especially from Labour and the Conservatives - are rather delicate, big-headed souls struggling to find relevance in Wales since devolution. I'm sure many get a kick from throwing their weight around by using their power and privileged position. They need to keep reminding us that they're there.

Like many people in the public eye, they don't like it when anyone - let alone an uppity blogger - flags potentially embarrassing things up for all to see.

The main thing the open letter did to harm Guto Bebb's reputation is hold a mirror up in front of him. If Guto feels he's been defamed, that's because his own documented actions and associations down the years have defamed himself.

I doubt hair-trigger tempers are considered a useful trait for a politician; so any politician in that position should probably consider taking up a more sedate job, like flower-arranging or dog grooming; perhaps even selling cocktails by the sea in Eilat.

If it were left to the courts to decide who's telling the truth in politics - based solely upon interpreting minutiae and reading between the lines of the statements they pump out - about 95% of British politicians would be dragged through the streets clapped in irons.

Guto Bebb was one of the few MPs I had a high opinion of, and Miserable Old Fart has said himself that he puts the work in at constituency level. He has his good side.

It's a shame really, but toys need to be put back in their pram.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A bunch of AMs walk into a library....

....and asked where the crap punchlines were.
They were pointed to the correct section.
(Pic : National Assembly via Flickr)

Just before the summer recess, the National Assembly's Communities, Equalities and Local Government Committee reported back on their wide-ranging inquiry into local libraries in Wales, which was launched at the new Caerphilly library (pdf).

With local government budgets under strain, libraries are coming under increasing financial pressure. The inquiry's aims were to determine : whether the Welsh Government were living up to their promises, the financial state of library services and what role they play in the community.


The Committee made 10 recommendations, in broad terms being :
  • The Welsh Government should publish an annual report on libraries and make available data on library use based on demographics.
  • A modern definition of "comprehensive and efficient library services" as a statutory obligation on local authorities, which should include free-of-charge internet access.
  • More Welsh Government support and guidance for : library service collaboration, voluntary accreditation for libraries, general promotion of library services, and to ensure libraries "pursue all available funding opportunities".
  • Core library services should remain free of charge, but alternative revenue-raising methods should be explored by local authorities.
  • There should be more financial support from the UK Government for libraries in light of the increasing use of online-only welfare administration.

Welsh Government Commitments

Library visits have risen considerably in Wales over the
last ten years, while there's been a decline in England.
(Pic : National Assembly via Flickr)
The Welsh Government's Programme for Government made specific commitments to widen access to local libraries and museums, and ensure local authorities meet statutory requirements with regard library service provision.

The initial findings were good. Library visits are up 11% on 2002-03, rising from 13.25million to 14.72million in 2011-12. England saw a 5.3% decline over the same period. Direct Welsh Government grant funding to modernise libraries was also praised (I'll return to that in more detail later).

However, some local authorities – Swansea, Conwy and Powys – as well as the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) said libraries don't feature as prominently in the Programme of Government as they should. The SCL said, "the role public libraries have to play in relation to key national policy areas (education, health, Welsh language, digital inclusion) should be more widely recognised and acknowledged."

The Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964's provisions mean local authorities have a statutory duty to provide "comprehensive and efficient" library services to the public whether they like it or not. There was no support for replacing this Act, though some local authorities and the WLGA believed the definition of "comprehensive and efficient" needed updating and greater clarity.

Culture Minister, John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East), acts as a library superintendent by setting down national library standards via the Welsh Public Library Standards and Assessment Framework, which was introduced in 2002.

These standards were considered helpful by respondents, with the WLGA saying they ensured, "a more consistent and better quality of library service across Wales". The WLGA (and local authorities) did, however, add that there needed to be a "change of focus" towards what libraries actually do so local authorities have a better idea what sort of services people like to use and where they can innovate.

The main concern here was, unsurprisingly, about budget cuts. Pembrokeshire Council described the current environment as "challenging" while Powys Council said the long-term future of libraries will be dependent upon "levels of community support and alternative delivery models".

The Culture Minister said he launched an expert review of library services in 2013 (which was supposed to report back last month). He added that he saw the 1964 Act as being "fit for purpose". A new set of library standards came into force from April this year, and was based more on outcomes (as many organisations giving evidence wanted).

The Minister said he was willing to publish an all-Wales report on library standards (local authorities already have to publish their own separate annual reports).

Finances & The Future of Local Library Services

With budgets under pressure, one option for the future of libraries
is "co-location" - as has happened with Bridgend Library.
(Pic :

Funding for libraries isn't ring-fenced despite it being a statutory duty. It was widely-accepted that local authorities will need to come up with new ways to provide library services in light of budget cuts – though the WLGA say that due to collaborative efforts through the likes of CyMAL, those cuts haven't hit as hard as they could've.

Some of the options put on the table by councils include : collaboration, community-managed libraries, relocation/adaption of libraries and revamped mobile libraries.

Some local authorities – like Flintshire and Carmarthenshire – are already collaborating across the "information sector" (further & higher education, health) to provide training, marketing and inter-library loans.

Newport Council were, however, sceptical of the savings made through collaboration. They prefer co-location (English : libraries and other services [i.e. leisure] under the same roof) to save money and attract new visitors. Bridgend library has relocated to the Recreation Centre (now dubbed "Bridgend Life Centre"), and Bridgend Council say it's resulted in 3,000 extra visits per month.

In terms of community management of libraries, it's a growing trend in England but received a mixed response here. The National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI) said it's resulted in a lack of support for volunteers from local authorities who are dumped with complex responsibilities.

Pembrokeshire Council said community-managed libraries "don't work in all communities and....standards of service....are highly variable." They also say there's a lack of diversity amongst staff in volunteer-run libraries, who are overwhelmingly white elderly women.

The use of volunteers wasn't completely dismissed. Merthyr Tydfil Council said the use of volunteers, "adds value not only to our service but to the wider community". The consensus was that volunteers should be used to supplement the work of professional staff; a sentiment the Culture Minister agreed with.

Some of the respondents were worried that co-location and volunteerism won't meet the budget cut requirements, and it's inevitable that some libraries will close. However, because library services often make up a small percentage of local government expenditure (around 1%), many organisations believe libraries shouldn't be disproportionately hit with cuts as it wouldn't really save much money.

Grant funding from the Welsh Government (i.e. to improve or upgrade libraries) is said to be key. Many respondents said these grants had made a significant difference. However, some local authorities – like Conwy and Pembrokeshire – said they might struggle to meet the Welsh Government's match-funding requirements in future. The Culture Minister said there were many alternative sources of funding – like the Lottery and EU – and these would be explored further.

Understandably, alternative ways of raising an income have been considered, such as room hire. However, there was little to no support for charging for core library services, which is said would defeat the purpose of open access.

The Future Role of Local Libraries

One important role libraries play according to the
inquiry is widening access to the internet.
(Pic :
The feedback from the inquiry's focus groups and library organisations implied that libraries are more than book depositories and often act as mini-community centres. When well-run they can  also support other local services, in particular health (information) and further/higher education. Open University said libraries "offered informal learning opportunities" through free online courses, for example.

Therefore, libraries also play an important part in widening access to the internet and digital services – in particular for older people and the disabled. Disability Wales said libraries act as a "gateway" to enable people without home internet access to access online services for free, meaning local authorities can save money by providing services online.

There was one area picked out, and that's UK Government welfare reforms, which has meant many welfare services have moved to online-only management – in particular Universal Credit. The WLGA said libraries have taken on "a more direct role" as a result. Disability Wales said the changes could impact the disabled who will be expected to be "digital by default" - being offline will no longer be an option.

The Culture Minister said the Welsh Government told the Department of Work and Pensions that they would expect them (DWP) to provide funding for "digital by default" welfare to cover staff training and wider funding issues.

Another, perhaps overlooked, role of libraries is to prevent loneliness amongst older people and other vulnerable groups by providing social opportunities.

A neglected community friend?

Libraries are seen as an important part of a community's identity, so much
so that many are willing to take extreme steps to protect them - like Rhydyfelin.
(Pic : Wales Online)
It's clear libraries are highly-valued by those that use them regularly, and the Welsh Government deserve credit for some of their support and grant schemes - which have made a difference.

It's obvious from the evidence given that libraries are about much more than books. They are - in effect - mini centres of learning, widen access to local and national services and also double up as de facto community centres.

Deciding precisely what a "comprehensive and efficient" library services means in the 21st Century is a conundrum, but one obvious part of that is providing free internet access as more services move online.

In serendipitous timing, maintaining some sort of free internet access (with welfare reform in mind) is something being addressed as part of Bethan Jenkins AM's (Plaid, South Wales West) Financial Education and Inclusion Bill.

The future of smaller libraries is still in the balance, perhaps best illustrated by proposals in Rhondda Cynon Taf. Glyn over at National Left has mentioned plans to close Beddau Library; while back in June, protesters campaigning against library closures chained themselves to bookshelves at Rhydyfelin Library in Pontypridd – and managed to get the decision overturned.

Big, modern libraries (like those in Cardiff, Caerphilly and Bridgend) are fine; but like all things in Wales there's a sense of attachment to the local that – even if it's parochial – does seem very hard to replace once lost.

It's not as if these things are reopened once they're shut.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Devolution at 15 : A Political Journey

(Owen : This series was originally going to be posted w/c May 12th 2014)

May 12th 2014 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the first meeting of the National Assembly.

It's an arbitrary anniversary that's not particularly significant, but five year increments are a good place to take stock. Because this blog's unlikely to be around for the twentieth anniversary, and to coincide with passing the 500th blog mark, I'll take a look at how devolution has shaped Wales politically, its successes and failures, and what the next 15 years might hold.

First Assembly (1999-2003) – "No Confidence"

From the ashes of the increasingly discredited Quango State, a new talking
shop rose....and almost collapsed under the weight of its own hubris.
(Pic : Wales Online)
  • Resignation of Alun Michael as First Secretary, Rhodri Morgan becomes first "First Minister"
  • Resignation of Dafydd Wigley as Plaid Cymru leader
  • 2001 foot & mouth disease epidemic
  • Closure of Ebbw Vale steelworks and mothballing of LG Newport

Approved by the slimmest margin in September 1997, the National Assembly for Wales sat for the first time on May 12th 1999 in a nondescript office building called Crickhowell House, which was previously part-housed by a health Quango and later rechristened the more Cymristically-correct Tŷ Hywel.

The byword for this first term was "chaos", which reflected its troubled birth. Before it even came into being, Ron Davies suddenly resigned as Welsh Secretary, ending his chances of leading Labour into this new era despite being the "Architect of Welsh devolution".

Plaid Cymru then achieved their best ever Assembly election result (~30% of the vote) – taking Valleys seats like Rhondda, Islwyn and pushing close in Cynon Valley and Pontypridd. This left Labour – as largest party - with no option but to form an unstable minority government. Turnout was low, but compared to subsequent years 46% looks fantastic.

The First Assembly was dominated by no-confidence motions,
internal party squabbles and concerns over a lack of
credibility due to Westminster interference.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
The First Assembly was effectively identical to what Wales would've got had the country voted yes in 1979. Lacking the powers of its Scottish and Northern Irish equivalents, the Assembly was derided as an ineffectual talking shop – a label it still struggles to shake off.

"Double jobbing" (being an MP and AM at the same time) was fairly commonplace. Though it allowed many "giants of Welsh politics" to ply a trade closer to home, it also gave the impression that Whitehall was heavily influencing the Assembly, with Alun Michael seen as London's preferred candidate for First Secretary.

Other AMs were new faces, many being former local councillors or failed Westminster and European candidates who perhaps brought a parochial, Gordon Brittas-style local authority mindset with them.

After a tumultuous eight months as First Secretary, Alun Michael was ditched in 2000 for party membership favourite Rhodri Morgan following an Objective One match funding row – avoiding the indignity of a(nother) no confidence vote (no confidence votes, or the threat of such, becoming something of a trademark during these first four years).

Rhodri Morgan led Labour into a long-forgotten coalition with the Liberal Democrats, which provided stability but failed to benefit the junior partners. Sound familiar? Lasting policies born from this first coalition include free entry to museums, Communities First (what I once described as "a little government's big idea"), the Children's Commissioner and Finance Wales.

With Alun Michael gone - partly because of their calls for a no confidence vote - you would've expected Plaid Cymru to be riding high. The sudden resignation as party leader in 2000 of one of the towering figures of Welsh nationalism, Dafydd Wigley, was for health and family reasons; but with Plaid Cymru often victim to internecine feuds, rumours of conspiracies were never far away.

Although Dafydd Wigley remains a senior nationalist figure, did
his exit mean Wales lost "Our Alex Salmond" from the Assembly?
(Pic : BBC Wales)
Despite 1999's success, it was clear many in Plaid preferred to form a broad progressive coalition with Labour in order to drive a wedge between Cardiff and London (tantalising glimpses of which were given during the Morgan-Michael tussle). They were worried the party, under Wigley's leadership, was too risk-averse. This paved the way for inconspicuous country lawyer, Ieuan Wyn Jones, to take the helm.

After Plaid were left marginalised as "extremists" following a campaign against Anglophone in-migration in 2001 by Cymuned, everything Plaid gained in 1999 was eventually lost, making you wonder if a bigger personality would've handled it better.

Dafydd Wigley's exit from the front line of Welsh politics (and failure to secure an Assembly return) is perhaps the biggest blunder Plaid have ever made; and although they'll probably claim otherwise, it's something Plaid are yet to recover from, even if Dafydd has since taken to wearing ermine.

2001 is best remembered for the September 11th attacks, which resulted in the biggest shift in global politics since the end of the Cold War.

Earlier that year a very Welsh disaster unfolded. With agriculture a devolved responsibility, the foot and mouth disease epidemic was perhaps the first time, in a crisis, that Welsh people looked to the Assembly for leadership instead of local councils or Westminster.

The boundaries of devolved powers caused difficulties, and there were clear mistakes - such as the unpopular decision to burn carcasses on the Epynt range, and the decision to close large chunks of the countryside. But while the (then titled) Welsh Assembly Government's response was mildly praised, a lot of the flak was aimed at UK's DEFRA.

Did the 2001 foot and mouth disease epidemic force
the Welsh Assembly to "grow up"?
(Pic :
The shift towards the Assembly and Welsh Government being the face of crisis management would later return in the form of the Pennington Inquiry into the 2005 e-coli outbreak, measles epidemics and handling natural disasters - especially flooding.

The First Assembly also coincided with the country facing up to the realities of globalisation. Due to liberalisation in former Communist countries, aspirations of EU expansion, and the shift in economic power from west to east, the Welsh selling-point of being a low-cost base for branch manufacturing was undermined.

The behemoth that was the Welsh Development Agency (WDA) looked outdated and outgunned, being hit by scandals and held up as an example of a patronage-based "Quango State".

Following a merger between privatised British Steel and Netherlands-based Hoogvens to form Corus, the Ebbw Vale steelworks closed in 2002 with the loss of 800 jobs. The works left a massive hole in the centre of Blaenau Gwent, contributing to the post-industrial downward economic spiral that the Heads of the Valleys region still hasn't recovered from – echoing a similar picture in Deeside caused by the closure of Shotton steelworks in 1980.

The rise of the National Assembly - and the far east - coincided with
the slow but inevitable death of the Welsh Development Agency.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
The decline of the Welsh steel industry during the 1990s and 2000s was as economically damaging as the decline of coal, masked by growth in the service, university and public sectors.

The subsequent regeneration of the former steelworks over the last 5 years underlines what replaced heavy industry since devolution : a community hospital, houses, a further education college and leisure facilities; services without any real economic substance.

Despite devolution, the Welsh Assembly didn't have much in their armoury to turn back the tide, with many of the flagship economic regeneration projects - like Techniums - flopping hard.

After being announced to great fanfare (and £150million+ in public subsidy), promising more than 6,000 jobs (delivered 1,200), the mothballing of the LG Newport factory (closed 2006) – along with the failure of Project Red Dragon at MOD St Athan - hammered more nails in the coffin of the WDA, indicating the end to nearly 30 years of continuous high levels of "big bang" direct investment in Wales.

Second Assembly (2003-2007) – "King Rhodri's Court"

The foundations laid, it was time to get down to
the real work after an ignoble first four years.
(Pic : National Assembly of Wales)
  • The introduction of free prescriptions
  • The "Bonfire of the Quangos" : Disestablishment of Welsh Development Agency, Wales Tourist Board, ELWA etc.
  • Opening of the Senedd building
  • Government of Wales Act 2006 establishes limited legislative powers for National Assembly following the Richard Commission
  • Resignation of Peter Law from Welsh Labour, and election of Trish Law following his death.

Welsh Labour's 2003 election manifesto was a masterstroke. Its 10 simple manifesto commitments (pdf) delivered what Rhodri Morgan himself called "clear red water" between Welsh and London Labour.

The scrapping of prescription charges remains - to this day - one
of the more memorable devolved policies of the last 15 years.
(Pic : via Wikipedia)
Labour in England experimented with policies like foundation hospitals, top-up tuition fees and city academies in order to promote choice and competition. Welsh Labour committed to "freebie" universal benefits and collaboration between service providers.

In 2003 this included free swimming and bus travel for the over-60s, free school breakfasts and perhaps most importantly of all, the scrapping of NHS prescription charges.

The proposals were clearly different from other parts of the UK, relatively inexpensive (large numbers of Welsh residents didn't pay prescription charges anyway) and headline-grabbing.

Although Labour failed to secure an Assembly majority, the 2003 manifesto played a part in handing them one of their best results despite an atrociously-low turnout of 38%.

The other key policy development during the Second Assembly was what would become known as "The Bonfire of the Quangos". Quangos had an increasingly poor reputation in Wales. Most were established by previous Conservative Welsh secretaries, and seen as unelected and unaccountable.

The "WAG" - as it became known colloquially - decided to take the functions of these arms-length bodies in-house, in a clear difference of opinion between Wales and the rest of Great Britain over what "the state" should do – intervention and collaboration in Wales, innovation and targets in England, a mix in Scotland.

By taking more powers "in house", the Welsh
Assembly Government centralised executive control.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

Ministers and civil servants in Cathays Park would have more direct control over key areas of public service delivery, all democratically accountable to the Assembly.

However, it also meant centralisation of executive power, the loss of private sector expertise and an increasingly state-centric approach to public policy. Since then, the vacuum left by the exit of private sector patronage has been filled by an explosion in (partly state-funded) voluntary sector patronage, collectively known as the "Third Sector".

2006 was a particularly historic year for Welsh devolution for three reasons.

The first was that the Richard Rodgers Senedd building was completed, officially opened by the UK's most senior civil servant, Bet Windsor, on St David's Day 2006. Although it didn't suffer as extreme problems as its Scottish equivalent, it was six times over-budget (at £67million) and was delayed four years. It's since become an iconic addition to Cardiff Bay waterfront, providing a state-of-the-art, environmentally-sound building fit for any 21st Century legislature. Very ironic considering Cardiff voted "no" in 1997.

And a legislature it would become. The second historic event of 2006 was the passing of the second Government of Wales Act. Until this moment, the National Assembly only had powers to pass regulations. Wales could still make significant changes – like the aforementioned scrapping of prescription charges – but couldn't alter the underlying legal foundations.

Wales was to have a full legislature, but....
(Pic : Liverpool University)
The Act – the result of a fudging of the 2004 Richard Commission report - meant that after the election of the Third Assembly, Wales would have the power to pass its own laws (Measures) in devolved areas....with permission from Westminster, known as the Legislative Competence Order (LCO) system.

LCOs were a compromise between devosceptic MPs and devolutionist AMs - keeping a London leash on the Assembly, but granting extra powers and freedoms to Cardiff.

In order to dangle a carrot in front of nationalists and devolutionists to keep them sweet, the Act also included a trigger for a referendum to give Wales full law-making powers in 20 devolved areas (removing the LCO system); though then Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, saw the Act settling the constitutional argument for a generation.

The third way 2006 was historic was that Wales fell out with Labour, with Labour's traditional supporter base feeling marginalised from an out of touch central office in London.

John Marek was the first Assembly Labour rebel, having been elected as Deputy Llywydd against Labour's wishes, subsequently winning Wrexham as an Independent. The second rebel was a former Michael administration minister, Peter Law. He resigned from Labour in 2005 due to a party policy of women-only shortlists during that year's UK elections. Peter Law subsequently won the Blaenau Gwent Westminster seat as an Independent with a majority of over 9,000.

Welsh Labour's fortunes faded towards the end of the Second Assembly,
having been humbled by a care assistant from Blaenau Gwent.
(Pic : Press Association via BBC Wales)
After battling against brain cancer, Peter died on 26th April 2006, prompting a double by-election in Blaenau Gwent. Independent Dai Davies unexpectedly took the Westminster seat, while Peter's widow, Trish Law – a care assistant, and to date the only working-class (by profession) AM in its history – became an AM with a majority of more than 4,000.

This was important for another reason. The National Assembly (somewhat ironically given the circumstances) became the first legislature in the world where the majority of representatives were women.

It's also the only period in the Assembly's history where there was more than one AM from outside the "Big Four" parties, with UKIP looking set to change that in 2016.

Third Assembly (2007-2011) – "Coming of Age (& Austerity)"

When America sneezes....
(Pic : The Guardian)
  • One Wales coalition between Labour and Plaid Cymru
  • NHS Redress Measure 2008 becomes first Welsh law passed since the reign of Hywel Dda
  • The 2007-2008 Financial Crisis, subsequent recession and Economic Renewal Plan
  • Carwyn Jones appointed First Minister
  • Yes vote in 2011 legislative powers referendum

The May 2007 elections were the last to be overseen by Tony Blair. As he was no longer an electoral force but an electoral liability (due partly to the unpopular war in Iraq), Labour endured a poor set of results across the UK, with Scotland electing a minority nationalist administration. Blair announced his resignation arrangements shortly afterwards, and Gordon Brown acceded to the position he always coveted a month later.

Plaid Cymru finally got what they wanted - a shot at government. While
Labour had to face up to serious problems, which were about to get worse.
As you can see, everyone was delighted.
(Pic : Press Associatiob via BBC Wales)
Wales' lover's tiff with Labour continued, delivering "a kicking" and - to date – the party's poorest result in an Assembly election.

Although Labour remained the largest party with 26 seats, it's too small to run a minority administration, but too big for other parties to ignore. Someone would have to go into coalition with someone else.

The period 2006-2010 was the Welsh political blogosphere's zenith, with coalition gossip and rumours played out to an increasingly influential internet audience. The initial talk was of a tripartite Plaid Cymru-led "Rainbow Coalition", set out in the All-Wales Accord agreement - but the Lib Dems infamously got cold feet in Builth Wells.

Labour briefly established a minority administration, but after further negotiations in June/July 2007 – interrupted by a Rhodri Morgan heart scare – Labour conceded to trigger a referendum on full law-making powers within the term, sealing agreement with Plaid Cymru to form the "One Wales" government.

Small, but significant.
(Pic : via Wikipedia)
With new legislative powers in effect, the first Welsh law in 500 years - regulating low-value compensation payments which result from medical negligence - was passed in a low-key affair late afternoon on May 6th 2008. Not exciting, but historic none the less.

Other key Measures passed during the Third Assembly included : caps on social care charges, granting the Welsh language official status, enshrining children's rights in law, the introduction of a charge for single-use carrier bags (partly result of a public petition) and setting minimum safety standards for school transport.

After a decade of property-fuelled consumer debt, the first inkling of serious problems in the UK economy came when Newcastle-based Northern Rock were unable to repay their own loans, prompting a bank run and eventual nationalisation by the UK Government.

Over a period of months, the situation developed into the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression. Housing bubbles burst across The West due to a consumer credit crisis, Lehmann Brothers went bust, household names like Woolworths disappeared, while London's financial service sector was said to be a hours away from total collapse and the UK close to martial law.

Despite having a small financial sector, Wales wasn't insulated from the crisis in big capital. Companies across all sectors that were reliant on credit – including Wales's proportionally larger manufacturing base - suddenly found banks unwilling to lend. Youth unemployment also skyrocketed, and during the height of the recession it was claimed half of the unemployed were aged under-25.

Traditionally, Wales' larger public sector would've shielded against rises in private sector unemployment. However, with households experiencing belt tightening, voters and populist sections of the media expected government to do the same.

During the tail end of the Brown administration, and with the incoming Conservative-Lib Dem coalition hellbent on austerity, the National Assembly had to manage challenging cuts to its budget for the first time. The impact on capital spending was evident on its own, falling by 40%.

The 2010 Economic Renewal Plan marked a shift from seeking
investment from foreign companies to growing Welsh businesses.
(Pic : Click on Wales)
With economic development a devolved responsibility, it was left to then Economy & Transport Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones, to formulate the Welsh Assembly Government's policy response.

The Economic Renewal Plan made bold changes to economic management. It intended to replace WDA-style grants with repayable loans, and established controversial key growth economic sectors, each overseen by a panel made up of government, academic and industry experts. The shift went from attracting foreign businesses to Wales, to growing Welsh-based businesses.

In addition, ProAct and ReAct were established to keep people who would otherwise have been laid off in work or training. The result was that while the Welsh economy still lagged behind the rest of the UK, unemployment never reached the cripplingly-high levels it had in previous recessions or the 1980s. This policy of state job support in the private sector remains (Jobs Growth Wales), albeit now focused on apprenticeships and job placements for the under-25s.

After just under ten years in office - arguably becoming the first recognisable "post-devolution personality" - Rhodri Morgan announced he would stand down as First Minister after the 2009-10 budget. The Labour leadership election was contested by three "post-devolution politicians", for whom all experience as professional elected representatives had built up post-1999 : Carwyn Jones, Huw Lewis and Edwina Hart.

Rhodri Morgan oversaw a smooth transition of power to Carwyn
Jones - but the prospect of a tricky referendum on full law-making
powers was an elephant in the room.
(Pic : Press Association via BBC Wales)
Bridgend AM and former barrister, Carwyn Jones,  was long considered the favourite and took the election in the first round with 52% of the vote.

Despite being seen as having a broad appeal and of being a safe pair of hands (like his predecessor), he was criticised for being too laid-back, too bland and even of being a closet nationalist.

After promoting a new generation of ministers to his cabinet, he renewed Labour's commitment to the One Wales agreement, which meant in the next two years he would have to secure a referendum on full law-making powers.

Although many Assembly Measures had passed with few problems, the inadequacies of the LCO system were best highlighted by stalled attempts to pass a law governing cycling in Wales (eventually becoming the Active Travel Act 2013). The short "permission slip" required to draft a law was consistently held up at Westminster, resulting in a grinding delay that lasted several years.

The referendum was triggered in February 2010, and support for full law-making powers had steadily increased since 2007 - all polling in the run up to the vote on 3rd March 2011 showing a clear "yes" majority. This didn't stop the Welsh political establishment – after a shambolic start - running a full campaign, perhaps being acutely aware that poor knowledge of the Assembly's work and highly technical nature of the question being asked could cause problems.

It was, in almost all aspects, a one-sided contest. This was aided by no campaign organisation - True Wales – opting against official campaign status, perhaps attempting to drive down turnout and media coverage.

The no campaign failed to offer an adequate alternative to, or defence of, the LCO system. It was also made up of the sizable minority of people in Wales frustrated with devolution itself rather than being overly-concerned with the minutiae of law-making, which meant many couldn't campaign for what they really wanted : a re-run of the 1997 referendum and abolition of the Assembly.

After a slow start, the "yes" campaign managed a
comfortable victory. What were they so worried about?
(Pic : BBC Wales)

As expected, the yes campaign swept home. In hindsight, both the turnout (~36%) and strength of the yes vote (63.4%) were bigger achievements than they seemed at the time.

The tight yes victory in 1997and negative portrayal of devolved politics created doubts in people's minds – including the Welsh political class – as to whether devolution was a settled will of the electorate. So the result also ended uncertainty about the National Assembly's place in Welsh politics. It was here to stay.

Bills and Acts were finally coming to Wales. The Bay Bubble were clearly excited; the First Minister telling those assembled at the Senedd on March 4th 2011 that, "An old nation had come of age".

Most people shrugged.

Fourth Assembly (2011-present) – "Parliament-lite"

A more powerful Assembly, but suffering the same old problems....
(Pic : Welsh Government via BBC Wales)
  • Welsh Labour matches best Assembly election result; Welsh Tories lose Nick Bourne; Leanne Wood elected Plaid Cymru leader
  • Silk & Williams Commissions : Framework for future devolved powers, including fiscal powers for the first time; (controversial) local government reform
  • Passing of Human Transplantation Act 2013
  • Call-in of three Welsh laws to the UK Supreme Court
  • UKIP surge in 2014 European Elections

Following the referendum, Wales was electing a parliament in all but name in May 2011.

The 2011 Assembly election was the first where Labour wasn't in power in London. This allowed Welsh Labour to frame a narrative of "sending a message to Westminster" and "standing up for Wales" in the face of swingeing cuts - which disproportionately impacted Wales due to a greater reliance on public services for employment and well-being. It was a Welsh election being fought as a Westminster midterm.

It might – at some point in the future – come back to haunt them, but it worked. Those who abandoned Labour in 2007-2009 came back in droves, giving the party a plurality of seats so they could govern alone. The rebound was cemented further when Labour retook most south Wales councils in the 2012 local elections.

As an AM, the cerebral Nick Bourne commanded respect across the
Assembly chamber, but despite his best efforts, the Conservative brand
has since partially slipped back into its old toxicity.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
Large chunks of the Welsh electorate sent a very different message to Westminster : "Keep doing what you're doing". The Welsh Conservatives became the second largest party, while the Welsh Lib Dems – fearing wipeout – lost only a single seat.

In 2007, the Conservatives scored near enough the same percentage of the popular vote as Plaid Cymru, but this didn't translate into extra seats due to where those votes were won and the limited number of regional seats.

Despite producing an ambitious manifesto (pdf) and a good performance (14 seats), electoral mathematics would haunt the Welsh Tories again. Due to constituency successes they lost leader Nick Bourne on the Mid & West Wales regional list.

Nick Bourne – the longest serving party leader in post-devolution Wales - managed to partially detoxify the Tory brand by successfully adopting duel-identity patriotism and healing the post-97 split within party ranks over devolution itself.

He was replaced by the more brusque, traditional Welsh Tory Andrew RT Davies. He's arguably failed to continue Nick's narrative, partly due to the increasing unpopularity of the Westminster government, and partly because of internal squabbling between Cardiff and London over who speaks for the Welsh Tory membership, as well as renewed splits of devolved powers and Europe. However, the Conservatives have clearly picked out Labour's perceived mismanagement of the Welsh NHS as a weak spot that could reap them rewards.

Ieuan Wyn Jones turned out to be, in many respects, the most successful leader in Plaid Cymru's history. However, Plaid's long-held ambition of being seen as a party of government failed to materialise. Far from being rewarded for a mostly credible spell in office, the May 2011 losses were a slap in the face to both Plaid generally and IWJ personally.

It was clear there was a need for change, manifesting itself as the party's Moving Forward review and a leadership election. Four candidates stepped forward – including former leader and Llywydd, Dafydd Elis-Thomas, and early favourite and former Rural Affairs Minister, Elin Jones – one of Plaid's most effective cabinet ministers during One Wales.

The election of Leanne Wood as Plaid Cymru leader was a sign
Welsh nationalism was stepping out of its comfort zone
- but is it enough to ensure electoral success?
(Pic : Wales Online)

Plaid's membership took an uncharacteristically bold step in electing Leanne Wood leader - a non Welsh-speaker based outside Y Fro Gymraeg. Someone so heavily associated with Plaid's socialist republican "hard left" was unlikely to have been many people's idea of leadership material.

Although there've been bumps along the way, Leanne Wood has overseen an activist-focused revamp of Plaid's campaigning methods and a professionalisation of policy-making and backroom support.

Significant challenges remain for Plaid and Welsh nationalists though. They look on enviously at the SNP's success in Scotland which has put them on the brink of achieving independence – a success which seems nigh on impossible to recreate in Wales at present, partly due to Plaid Cymru itself.

If there's one thing everyone should've learned since 1999, it's that the Welsh political establishment love nothing more than setting up committees, task forces and commissions. The Westminster coalition's review of devolved powers accompanied the (retitled) Welsh Government's own attempt to get to grips with two of the biggest challenges in Wales – sluggish public service delivery and local government reform.

The result was two commissions, chaired by the two Pauls – Silk & Williams.

The Silk Commission was split into two halves. Silk I proposed limited fiscal devolution and borrowing powers – including the prospect of powers to vary income tax rates....subject to another highly-technical referendum. Silk II set out further devolved powers; including policing, teachers' pay and a boost to energy & water powers (a sore spot in Wales since Tryweryn).

A new role for (Lord) Nick Bourne, and a new set of powers
due to come to Wales.... partially subject to a referendum.
(Pic : Click on Wales)

The Williams Commission outlined changes not only how public services are managed, but a significant reduction in the number of local authorities from the current 22 to 10-12.

The final terms are to be decided, with deadlines missed and tempers frayed in county halls across Wales, all of which are dealing with the toughest financial settlemens since devolution.

In the background, there was ongoing discussion about the future of the Assembly itself, with talk of an increase in the number of AMs from 60 to 80, changes to the electoral system and a possible name change to "Welsh Parliament" - pretty much everything that could've been done 10 years ago had the Richard Commission been implemented in full.
There's irony in that everything True Wales "warned" people about in 2011 - that a yes vote would lead to more AMs and devolution of tax-varying powers - would turn out to be right, but for the wrong reasons.

A ban on AMs standing in constituency and on regional lists at the same time within the Government of Wales Act 2006 - which has cost opposition parties dearly in terms of political talent in the past - is also set to be's just come a bit too late for Nick Bourne.

Many laws under the new legislative powers have been important but uninspiring – reforming bylaws, significantly reforming social services, a law on cycle lanes (at last). However, a long wished for proposal to introduce an "opt-out" system for organ donation managed the rare feat of sending Welsh politics to the top of the UK news agenda. As a controversial headline-grabbing law, the Human Transplantation Act 2013 indicated just how different policy in Wales could be under devolution and its expanded legislative powers.

Three Welsh laws have become entangled in the web of the 2006
Act, meaning arguments whether Wales has devolved powers
over this and that haven't been put to rest.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
Despite being granted primary law-making powers, there were still shades of grey. Most of this resulted from the mechanics of precisely how powers are devolved to Wales within the Government of Wales Act 2006.

These grey areas have led to not one, not two, but three Welsh laws being referred to the Supreme Court, after concerns from the UK Government and Welsh Counsel General that they were beyond the scope of the National Assembly's powers – which are devolved on a line-by-line basis.

Although the Welsh Government successfully won a case where the Local Government Bylaws Act 2012 removed powers from UK Secretaries of State, the subsequent calling-in of the emergency Agricultural Sector Bill (another case the Welsh Government won) and member-sponsored Asbestos Disease Bill has led to increasing calls for a reserved powers model in line with Scotland and Northern Ireland – subsequently recommended as part of Silk II.

In May 2014 an earthquake hit Wales, though only 32% of the population noticed. Despite the seat situation remaining status quo ante bellum following the European Parliament elections, UKIP's surge in Wales took the other three parties contesting a seat by surprise, in particular Labour.

The reasons why are unclear, but likely to to come down to : a rise in anti-politics feeling amongst older voters; the fallout from the immensely damaging 2009 Westminster expenses scandal which shook faith in institutional politics; a rising anti-immigration sentiment since EU enlargement in 2004; and the media appeal of Nigel Farage. It also indicated Wales isn't as detached from the rise in euroscepticism in England as many would like to think (after decades of continuous high-profile EU structural funds)– despite polls showing support in Wales for remaining in the EU.

Major scandals shaking faith in institutional politics could've
contributed to the rise of populist hard-right parties across Europe.
(Pic : The Guardian)
Although transgressions are often minor in Wales compared to Westminster counterparts, poor handling of one of the more serious political scandals in post-devolution Wales - which eventually led to the Natural Resources & Food Minister being sacked for trying to obtain private information about five opposition AMs - has led some to suggest that "sleaze" could be labelled to what increasingly looks like a tired Welsh Labour machine.

This is all in the backdrop of long-standing concerns over mismanagement of the health service, sluggish education standards, and concerns that the Welsh executive is too powerful (perhaps an unintended side effect of the Second Assembly's "Bonfire"), believing they're beyond scrutiny - especially from what remains of the Welsh press.

This was exemplified further by the sudden decision to give a go-ahead to a controversial £1billion bypass of Newport in July 2014, which could amount to being the largest single capital investment in Welsh history through the use of borrowing powers due to be devolved as part of the Wales Bill. The Assembly barely had any time to scrutinise the process properly.

With under two years until Wales elects the Fifth Assembly, the only other significant development that could be considered historic is the proposed Well-being of Future Generations Bill. It's an odd law that would lock down "sustainability" (post-devolution Wales' favourite buzzword) on the statute books to address generational challenges and guide the long-term development of Wales.

Over the last two terms the National Assembly has matured considerably. What remains is the perennial matter as to whether the Welsh electorate is as mature, or as interested/engaged with it, as AMs would like us to be. The public aren't as divided about its existence as they once were, but it has hardly been taken to people's hearts either.

Part II will look at the failures during the first 15 years of devolution. Brace yourselves....