It does not mean of course that that greater need is equally distributed across the whole of Wales (similarly, the English average is just that – an average - as well; it varies greatly across England). It often strikes me as being incongruous, at the least, to see politicians arguing for a reform of the Barnett formula to give Wales a greater share, and then jumping on bandwagons about “postcode lotteries” within Wales when they see inequalities within our country.
Fairness is difficult to define when we look simply at revenue expenditure on devolved matters. It’s even harder to define when we look at major capital infrastructure projects – such as HS2 for instance.
The call for a Barnett consequential for HS2 has a certain political appeal, supporting the narrative that Wales is losing out, but surely the nature of individual capital projects is that they will inevitably favour some areas over others. The question of fairness is only relevant when looking at the total of all capital expenditure over a longer period rather than individual projects.
There’s a further complication as well – capital projects which impact major conurbations are likely to be more expensive in terms of £ per mile of road or railway than the same or similar projects in rural areas. Does that mean that London “needs” more capital expenditure per head than Wales, and that a needs-based distribution should proportionately give a greater share to London?
Or what about the putative HS3? If a line is built providing fast rail services to Bristol and Cardiff, what proportion of that expenditure should be counted as “Welsh”? Probably 90% of the capital expenditure would be in England – but that would not reflect the way in which any benefits are shared.
I’m not actually arguing that London should get a greater share of UK capital expenditure; nor even that Wales gets her fair share at present. But the simplistic response demanding our Barnett share of capital expenditure based on an arithmetical percentage of individual capital projects no more reflects need than does the current Barnett formula. The question of fairness is far more complex than that.