When I first read the report yesterday about the speech by the Secretary of State for Wales, it immediately struck me that he was, in effect, proposing that any future regional aid from the UK Treasury to Wales should be managed and controlled from London, not Cardiff, even if he didn’t say that directly. Today’s comments by the leader of the Conservatives in the Assembly seem to fill in the gap very well. Not one for a subtle approach to saying what he thinks, Andrew RT Davies has made it very clear that he wants this money managed for Wales not by Wales. It’s hard to interpret this double-pronged approach as other than the start of a post-Brexit process of removing authority from the Assembly.
They justify it, of course, on the basis of an argument that what matters is not who does it, but that it’s done right. The problem with that argument is that it means that anything which Cardiff can’t do ‘right’ is fair game for transfer to our masters in London who are apparently uniquely qualified to do everything properly. By sheer coincidence, there was another story today, reporting on the comments by Professor Richard Wyn Jones including a suggestion that UK institutions have not adapted to devolution. He said: “… what’s striking about the central institutions of the UK state is they have not changed at all as a result of devolution”. It occurred to me that the comments by Davies and Cairns sum up fairly well why the UK’s central institutions haven’t adapted, and see no need to adapt, to devolution. It’s simply that they see devolution not about any recognition of the UK being some sort of partnership of nations (even though they use those words) but about an approach to administration – just another part of local government, in effect. From that perspective, why should they need to adapt?
Anyway, back to European funding and the Tories’ criticism of the way Labour have managed it. I have a lot of sympathy with that they are saying in this instance. It’s perhaps unfair of them to single out Labour alone for their criticism – I don’t remember things being spectacularly better-managed during the One Wales period – but that just underlines that their purpose here is more about political point-scoring than about improving things – and I’ll return to that point shortly.
Over recent years, I’ve been present (as a translator) at a lot of meetings discussing European funding and how to spend it. I won’t go into individual details, but I have two clear impressions coming out of a range of different discussions. The first is that European structural funds have spawned something of a consultancy industry in Wales as people line themselves up to help others make applications for funding, and get paid out of those same funds themselves. The second is of a culture where business plans are written to tick the boxes with the funders rather than as a serious attempt to describe what projects will do – on two occasions, I’ve even heard them referred to as being ‘akin to creative writing’.
In addition to that, I’ve witnessed delays and arguments about the release of funding and a bureaucracy being built up to manage and report on the use of funding. All of these reduce the amount of funding which eventually gets spent directly on meeting the objectives of projects.
In all those senses, the Tories have a point. But I’d argue that these are all peripheral points to what I would see as the central criticism, and it’s a criticism that the Tories haven’t even made as far as I can see. It is this: rather than being seen as special, short-term, one-off funding which the Welsh Government could use to meet a strategic aim of improving the Welsh economy, the money has been seen as a pot of available cash for which people and groups can apply. This may well have enabled a number of things to be done which would not otherwise have been done – but it has also created a wealth of photo-ops for Welsh ministers and for creating and sponsoring client groups (and I leave it to readers to come to their own conclusion about the relative importance of these things to those involved). But, and it’s a very big but, there have been no visible underlying objectives or strategy for achieving them. It has been a massive missed opportunity for Wales.
The problem with the Tories’ position is that in the desire to make a political point about the incompetence of Labour in particular (and by implication, Welsh institutions in general) they have concentrated on the froth and offered only a different process for controlling and managing the expenditure. They are no more offering a vision or strategy than Labour, and that means that their proposed ‘solution’ is no such thing.Wales deserves better, but there’s something rather old-style colonial in the apparent belief that better simply means someone doing it for us rather than us doing it ourselves.