Monday, 13 May 2013

Devolution: more dynamic, but more complex

I've just spent a very enjoyable few days in North Wales (lovely, thank you), during which I spoke at a Workshop on 'Community Building Governance' at Bangor University (above).

It was a very enjoyable day, attended by politicians (such as Anglesey MP Albert Owen), representatives from the charitable sector, third sector organisations such as Housing Associations, and - of course - the inevitable academic or two.

I won't bore you too much with the details. But what struck me the most was just how rapidly the United Kingdom's constituent elements are diverging in their constitutional and policy practice. I should know most of this, of course - but life's sometimes to short to hang onto most of the detail. Fixated on the Scottish independence referendum due next year, we sometimes fail to look at Wales as an example of a small country trying to do things differently on the other side of Offa's Dyke.

Devolution is dynamic. Following a 2011 referendum, the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Assembly Government now have many more powers than under their original late-1990s remit. And resultant policy differences are growing. It was evident just from a few hours at Bangor that the entire political culture is different. There is a very different constellation of forces contending for power within the policy-making landscape. Local government is more powerful; the National Parks are bigger players, at least in relatively remote, rural North Wales; the state is bigger and more confident; four parties have entrenched power bases in way that UKIP can only dream about (for now) in England.

Take one example: Communities First, a series of grass-roots partnerships that have been attempting to tackle poverty at the ward and local level since 2001 - surely one of the longest-running policy initiatives of all, unheralded across the rest of the UK. A series of organic contacts between different groups too often sundered in England - acting of course in a much smaller country - its recent re-orientation towards a 'bottom up' rather than a relatively mechanical and statistical 'top down' approach was subject to both praise and controversy on the day.

It's an interesting example of multi-centred policymaking, and we're all going to have to get used to it. One of the few benefits of Bill Clinton's 'aboltion of welfare as we know it' was the handing down of much power to the individual states, meaning that they could learn from each other and experiment much more easily than previously.

Can we grasp that nettle here? It looks unlikely for now, especially given the three different parties in power in Cardiff, Edinburgh and London, but more events like Friday's Community-Building Workshop might give grounds for hope.

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