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. 

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.