The Welsh Assembly gets new powers this year. How will they affect those in Wales?

The Senedd building, Cardiff Bay. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

As former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies once said, “Devolution is a process, not an event.” The continual adjustment to the original settlement demonstrate that it is a statement still as pertinent today as it was about 20 years ago.

After the historic ‘yes’ vote for devolution in 1997, the Labour government passed the Government of Wales Act 1998, creating the National Assembly of Wales, or Senedd, and transferring powers to Cardiff from Westminster. Many of these powers were insufficient, however: the new body had only secondary legislative power, requiring the approval of the British Government, and its legislative and executive bodies operated as one entity. In 2006, these two parts were separated, in line with the recommendations of the Richard Commission, ensuring more accountability for those elected to the assembly.

Now, as we enter 2018, the Assembly Members (AMs) have secured yet further powers as they look to better represent the interests of the entire population. The UK Parliament has for many years reviewed its own constituency boundaries and the number of MPs: now the Senedd has the same powers under the revised Wales Act. The voting system used for elections is also now under the jurisdiction of those in Cardiff Bay, as is the age at which people can participate in elections.

Arguably, these are changes that will be most significant because of the opportunity to allow 16 year olds to vote. As political engagement increases among younger generations, and with many decisions directly impacting teenagers, it is only right that they too should have a say in who governs on their behalf. The lowering of the voting age could result in significant transformations in who is elected, and the policies that are implemented, as more recognition will be awarded to younger people.

Devolved taxation powers are also set to rapidly transform the economic foundations of Wales. From April, the UK Stamp-Duty Tax and the Landfill Tax will be replaced with two new taxes introduced by the Senedd: the Land Transactions Tax and the Landfill Disposals Act.

Under the former, the level at which a property is exempt from any charge will be raised from £125,000 to £150,000. For properties sold for more than £400,000, the new tax will be 7.5 per cent instead of the previous level of 5 per cent under the Stamp-Duty Tax. This, it’s hoped, will help first-time buyers get onto the property ladder, and assist those with limited means to afford to move.


Changes such as these are also indicative of the largely positive attitude that the Welsh Assembly has towards issues like inequality. Other issues where some further powers have been devolved include energy, where there is the possibility of more renewable power plants being approved, as well as employment equality.

However, it is uncertain whether these changes will resolutely tackle the voter apathy and political disengagement that is evident across Wales – much of which is attributed to the work of Welsh Assembly. With ongoing disquiet over AMs’ and ministers’ pay, these increased powers are unlikely to transform the way the Welsh Assembly is viewed in many areas of the country.

Much of this anger is directed towards the governing Labour Party over its management of the Welsh NHS. Last month, there were also allegations it was running a “one party state”, after individuals were gagged from speaking to the media about the current state of the health service.

For those governing the Welsh Assembly, further devolved powers are a significant achievement as they look to continue to exert their influence. Yet at the end of the day it is the people who decide whether it’s a good deal – and many still distrust and disregard the political system in Cardiff. 

 
 
 
 

Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.