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. 

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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