Thursday, 5 June 2014

Who's taking the decisions?

The proposal that Welsh should have prominence on all road signs in Wales is one that I find it very easy to support.  It is, after all, only a repeat of a proposal made 40 years ago by the official committee set up to look into the matter.  And the suggestion that there should be no mass replacement of road signs, merely a gradual replacement as and when new signs are needed, is certainly a way of minimising the cost, although it will inevitably mean that the process of replacement is a very slow one.  (As an example, I noticed earlier this week on a rural road in Carmarthenshire that there is still a road sign pointing to a place called “Llanelly”; it’s a sign which no one has ever felt it necessary to replace.  And I doubt that it's unique.)
I’m less enthusiastic, though, about the idea that this should be imposed as a rule which all local authorities will be compelled to follow by the Welsh government, even though I know that it won’t happen any other way.  It’s a classic case of a dichotomy between the decision that I want, and the question of where that decision should be taken.  I’m not a great believer in the idea that individual decisions should be taken wherever we can get the “right” outcome.
It’s a point I’ve posted on many times before – what are local councils for; what power should they have; and what value do elected councillors add?
Currently “local government” functions are a mishmash of different things.  In some fields councils are simply acting as local agencies implementing government directives, in others they set policy for themselves.  And there are some fields, of course, when it’s not always entirely clear where policy is really being set.  It was disappointing that the Williams Commission didn't really address this question of purpose - there seemed to be an implicit assumption that local councils are primarily agents for local delivery rather than policy-setting bodies with their own democratic mandate.
The result is that local and central government regularly blame each other for failure and try to grab credit for success.  The councillors we elect have, in reality, little real power over many of the decisions for which they are nominally responsible.
I don’t for one moment believe that we would all draw the line in the same place – I’m an instinctive decentraliser, and accept as a consequence that local control necessarily leads to local differences, and that I will not like all of those differences.  But it would surely be better to draw such a line between truly locally determined services, and nationally determined services which are merely delivered locally.  The former could be delivered by strong local government recognising the mandate which elected councillors have, and the latter by local offices of national government, deleting all pretence that there’s anything “local” about the policies being pursued.
Claiming that road signage is the prerogative of Wales’ local authorities and then decreeing every aspect of policy concerning their format and siting is merely perpetuating a dishonesty – what is there left for councils to decide?  A more honest policy would be simply to move the responsibility to the highways authorities which are already direct agencies of national government.


Anonymous said...

The principle you mention is hard to disagree with but of course the crux comes when you ask the question - Who decides where the most appropriate level for decision making lies?

Anonymous said...

Local councils that enforce Welsh speaking signs in English speaking areas will find themselves inundated with claims for financial compensation, valid or otherwise, unless they can claim that it is a Welsh government directive.

Only an idiot could suggest that the names Holyhead and Caergybi are remotely similar. Positioning on a road sign is of vital importance. I have been let off countless speeding tickets because I, as a non-Welsh speaker, live in a Welsh speaking area with Welsh signage taking precedence over English. Quite rightly no-one dares suggest that I have time to read both English and Welsh parts of a speeding notice or roadwork sign, the overriding priority is solely driving the car safely by watching the road.

And since when was Wales an all-Welsh speaking country? The vast majority only speak English, as much a Welsh language as Welsh itself.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11.33 - have you seriously been let off speeding ticket because you're a non Welsh-speaker. Seriously? No, serously?

What part of a '30' mph sign don't you understand? The name of the town or village is irrelevant. The sign says just '30' (or '20' or '40') there is no language.

I recently drove in Ireland where there are bilingual signs - no problem. I've driven in France, Belgium, NL and Germany and I don't speak their langauges - no problem. Israel, where I've also been has signs in 3 language and 3 different alphabets - no problem.

In fact, in Ireland, I found myself within a matter of minutes I(much to my surprise) skipping the Irish and reading the English. It's no problem.

In fact, I'd change Holyhead to Caergybi, Cardigan to Aberteifi, Carmarthen to Caerfyrddin only. If people can get aroung 'Machynlleth' and Llanfairpwllgwynllyll they can get around places with the name in the original and correct Welsh form. But I'm not going to push that, more because I can't be bothered than because the principle is correct.

The English place names have been built and given in a process of colonialism, very often, based on local ethnic cleansing. So, yes, many of us remember that and think a recognition of the history and original meaning of the place isn't such a bad idea.

I think, in fact, that many Welsh people (non-Welsh speakers included) quite like and get used to Welsh and bilingual signs. I certainly find myself looking for the Welsh version of a sign when I'm in England because I am now so used to it. It's the norm to me!

I tend to agree with John Dixon in that this could be left to local authorities. There are also more fundamental things Carwyn Jones needs to do for the language - education, housing etc than revisiting an argument which has been mostly won since the 1970s. But it's going to happen over years and people will take it in their stride.

A. Driver

John Dixon said...

Anon 11:19,

"Who decides where the most appropriate level for decision making lies" Well, me of course!

More seriously, deciding what should be decided where is not an easy task. It's a subject which the Williams Commission avoided, preferring to concentrate on structures rather than principles. That's a missed opportunity, which will lead to tinkering with what is rather than thinking about what should be. By default, local power will continue to be eroded as the centre takes more and more power to itself. In effect, the Assembly is taking the decision about what should be decided where - and the answer they usually seem to give is "here".

Anon 11:33,

"I have been let off countless speeding tickets because I, as a non-Welsh speaker, live in a Welsh speaking area with Welsh signage taking precedence over English" Really? I'm afraid that I don't find that at all credible - the last time I looked, speed limits were denoted by rather large and very clear numbers, not in words in either language.

Anonymous said...

errrrrrr ........ at any roadworks where the signs are in Welsh first; when sign talks about 'average speed' (in Welsh first) through roadworks, diversions, etc.; when a sign says slow down (in Welsh first) quickly followed by the speed sign itself.

And by the way, any and all parking issues aren't legally enforceable if Welsh is written first (unless there is a clearly visible sign that say's in English 'the Welsh language is in force in this area' (or some such .... ask your solicitor).

Go check it out. Why do you thing so many English people love living in Wales.

John Dixon said...


Whilst I'm grateful for the clarification, I still don't find the idea that you've been let off "countless" speeding tickets because of Welsh signage in the slightest bit credible. And I think you might need to find a new solicitor to advise you on the accurate legal status of Welsh signs, although if you've found one who really can get you off speeding and parking tickets because of Welsh signs, I guess that there is no incentive to change ...

Anonymous said...

Me again (ANon 11:19) or DaiTwp when I remember to put a name.

I agree again with what you say and it is a difficult one in particular for supporters of the Welsh language. I think it can widely be agreed that there is much more goodwill towards the Welsh language at a national level than a local one (with a couple of exceptions). The trouble is the vast majority of services which have a direct impact on the langauge are (at least in theory) taken place at a local level - where effectively the languagee element is ignored.

A topical example is that at present all the local authority WESPs are being considered by Huw Lewis. The WG has a Welsh Education strategy with clear targets set out. Howver in order to achieve these targets it is the local authorities that will have to practically deliver them. This is not happenening at the moment and the targets set out are going to be missed by some way. Who's to blame? When Carwyn was challenged he basically layed the blame on the local councils (even thought it's a WG strategy). If you talk to the local councils they will argue that there is no extra funding to create extra WM ed spaces and the overiding pressure on them (again from the WG) is to reduce empty spaces in EM schools which is why the majority of an already squeezed 21st Century Schools Capital funding programme is dedicated to that rather than creating new WM places.

John Dixon said...

Both are difficult issues, but my underlying point is that we need to decide whether we want meaningful local government or not. I'm uncomfortable with the idea that any time that the centre doesn't like a decision it simply imposes an alternative policy (even if I support that alternative policy and would like all councils to follow it!) Where we draw the line between what is local and what is national has to be open to debate - and maybe it's time to move the line openly and honestly; but once a line is drawn, there has to be an acceptance that there will be differences across Wales, in fields controlled by local government, as a result. Otherwise, we might just as well stop pretending that local councillors have any value or role. But what we have is politicians who talk about powerful local democracy, and who have criticised the way that the UK has taken powers away from local councils in the past, and who are then supporting doing exactly the same at a Welsh level. When devolution was under debate in Wales, none of the parties indicated that it would lead to increased centralism within Wales, yet that is in effect what they all now support.

Guto said...

As a solicitor I can guarantee you that signs with Welsh first have the exact same legal standing as English first signs. There is no such thing as "Welsh being in force in this area".

The law gives Welsh and English equal standing, totally equal.

And if your solicitor has really gotten you off for not reading bilingual sings with Welsh first (which I can only doubt) then you should be paying him a ton as he is a solicitor who seems to be able to convince Magistrates to ignore the law.

Anonymous said...

Guto, we all know it's true. We just don't want to admit it ........ we've been campaigning for better use of the language for years and now what do we find? It helps others rather more than it helps us!

Anonymous said...

It's all about the placement ...... the language(s) used, other than the English language and its particular placement, is irrelevant.

If a road sign, any road sign, doesn't display the English form in the place that it is reasonably expected to be (think Lord Dennings reasonable man test) then its is unenforceable. This applies to speed sign, parking signs and so on.

In truth, much as you would expect!

John Dixon said...


Sometimes when people get an idea into their heads, it's impossible to shift it, and I suspect that may be the case here, but I'll try again. Your "If a road sign... doesn't display the English form in the place that it is reasonably expected to be ... then it is unenforceable" depends on an assumption that English enjoys a particular legal status which Welsh does not. Suggest you try reading Guto's comment again. Whilst there certainly was a time when your assumption was true, it isn't now.

Anonymous said...

Ask a humble Magistrate/Circuit Judge how many lines of text he/she could expect to read at a glance when travelling in a car. One or two is always the answer. And starting from the top.

Now, if the English language 'instruction' doesn't fit that form then no charges can be upheld.

Try it. Works every time in North Wales (where Welsh is put above English).

John Dixon said...

I'm sorry, but thee's little point in continuing this discussion. Merely repeating nionsense ad infinitum doesn't make it true.

Gav said...

Let's face it, whatever people say they do seem far happier with central command and control than with subsidiarity. Witness all those whines about "postcode lotteries" whenever local decision-making is taken seriously.

And as an aside, why is it that people who dislike the Welsh language also seem to lack basic driving skills? Could it be that being bilingual make you a better driver too?

John Dixon said...

"Witness all those whines about "postcode lotteries" whenever local decision-making is taken seriously"

I take the point. But, interestingly, (or perhaps 'hypocritically' would be a more appropriate word), many of the politicians whining about post code lotteries also claim to believe in strong local government. I suspect that what they really believe in is just grabbing quick headlines...