Friday, 29 May 2015

What's the real issue?

I thought that this story was rather confused and confusing when I read it first; and after re-reading it, I haven’t changed my mind.  There is a lack of clarity about whether the problem is where the powers lie, whether it’s about what is done with those powers, or whether it’s simply about spending priorities.
The headline claims that failure to devolve more road safety powers to Wales is costing lives on Welsh roads because the numbers of deaths and serious injuries have fallen more slowly here.  But the reasons for that are less than entirely clear – lack of devolution surely means that the policies being followed in Wales are the same as those in England - the question about why they have a different result is more complicated than simply where the power lies.
And later in the story, the director of the RAC which is the organisation behind the report says that “The UK risks breaking apart in terms of road safety policy with different administrations having varying levels of power, funding and political will to deal with death and injury on the highways”, which sounded to me more like an argument for less devolution than more - in direct contradiction of the headline.
In essence, the detail of the criticism seems to be more about whether the Welsh Government is spending enough on road safety than about where the power lies, but that looks more like a criticism of the Welsh Government for not setting the same spending priorities as England than of any lack of devolution.  It’s an argument for consistent central decision making rather than for more devolution.
And that, perhaps brings us to the nub of the issue here – as on so many issues, there is a lack of understanding of the fact that the very existence of devolved administrations inevitably means that there will be differences in outcomes in the different countries of the UK.  I don’t say that to defend a situation where Wales is failing to reduce deaths and injuries on roads as quickly as England; no-one would want to defend that.
Comparisons with what happens elsewhere are inevitable and entirely proper, and with England being so close, it’s the obvious point of comparison.  The RAC are right to draw attention to the divergence in outcomes, and it is something which should concern us.  I’m not sure that the story sheds much light on the answer though – calling on the Welsh Government to spend more in any area where it is underperforming (whilst it has no control of its total revenue) is easy; saying from where the cash should come is a great deal harder.

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