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.