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A Roadmap for Major Projects in Wales

Cathy Owens
Cathy Owens

Below is an article first published by the Western Mail about how businesses should  develop a better understanding of the minority government system that has developed in Wales over the last 20 years.

The electoral system and the relatively fixed poltiical geography means that we'll always have coalitions and agreeements between parties. Just as in Westminster, any major project requires a majority. In Wales, that means you need to get two parties on board to ensure success. 

The M4 Decision and the Big Picture

It’s the big news story in Wales this week, but for seasoned Assembly watchers, it became clear about 5 years ago the Welsh Government was unlikely to build the M4 Relief Road. Now that we’ve finally had the decision to ditch the Black Route, perhaps the biggest surprise is just how surprised some of the business community have been.

In Wales, there are a few big picture issues that shape the decisions that politicians take. Firstly, it’s a numbers game.

We have only 60 AMs and an electoral system that mitigates against a majority government. For most of the last 20 years, we’ve had a multi-party system. In comparison to the long-standing Lab v Con dichotomy in Westminster, which still may re-emerge after Brexit, the Assembly politics is shaped in the main by a dominant Labour, with about equal-sized opposition from Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives, and a smaller group made up of either the Lib Dems or UKIP/Brexit Party.

This means anything very controversial – closing a hospital, merging local authorities, changing boundaries or spending a billion quid – requires support from two out of the three larger parties, or it simply can’t happen.

It’s for this reason we could tell some of those involved back in 2014 that persuading the Economy Minister that the Black Route was the only way forward, and relying on that Minister to deliver it, when we were 18 months away from an election, was an inherently risky plan.  “It’s going to be in the Labour manifesto”, they said, “and the First Minister is backing it”.

Carwyn Jones, however, was always going to stand down half way through the next Assembly term, and the Economy Minister, Edwina Hart, wasn’t even standing in 2016. Labour would have to agree any budget which included a £1.5bn road with another party – probably Plaid Cymru. And if a cross-party campaign to support the investment was not in place, it was going to be far too easy for Plaid Cymru to put scrapping the road as a red line in their manifesto. By that time, the mere suggestion that the Blue Route was a viable alternative meant that Plaid Cymru felt able to back that option, even though it was unlikely to solve the problem at hand.

I’ve lost count with the number of times I’ve been told by business leaders that “We don’t do politics”, usually with the predictable refrain “and it should not be a political decision anyway!”.  The project would take up a good 5 years-worth of tax-payers infrastructure capital, and you don’t think you need to engage in the politics?

And of course it should be a political decision! It’s our money. And we’ve elected people who we believe share our values to make the decisions on how the money is spent.

Devolution is about having politicians, chosen by the people, nearer to the people, to make the decisions about how to spend our money to shape society’s future. It’s why Rhodri Morgan brought into the Welsh Government undemocratic quangos such as the WDA – run by some who thought they were unarguably right and that the elected representatives of the people shouldn’t have a view.

Since Mark Drakeford came to power, of course, it was abundantly clear he’d ditch the new road. He laid out his sustainability credentials and was barely struggling to conceal what was about to happen, if you happened to be listening. And it was clear Mark would win for the last 3 years, given the changes to the Labour membership.

You only had to look at his previous decisions. As Finance Minister he surprised no one except landbanking housebuilders that he was going to opt for a landbanking tax. “A great shock”, they said, “he’s not listening to business”. Perhaps it was businesses who were guilty not listening to the future First Minister.

But Mark Drakeford does have a price to pay. It’s big decisions like this that can give the impression that jobs, growth and the economy are not as much of a priority to the new First Minister as health, social care and housing. And that’s because it’s undeniably true. His first priority is always going to be social justice.

Both Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones were hugely successful electorally. They both ran relatively leftish governments, with a focus on ameliorative policies in domestic policy such as health and education – distinct from the competition injected by New Labour and attempting to mitigate the Conservative’s damaging austerity dogma. Mark Drakeford played an important part in shaping those policy platforms. At the same time, both Rhodri and Carwyn reached across into the centre-ground, by being very focused on jobs and prosperity.

That meant that there was no space to the left, and with a good pitch to the centre, Welsh Labour was able to count on a decent 40% of the vote for the last 20 years.  Since Mark Drakeford came to power, he has not been able to plant any sort of stake in the centre ground, and that could severely limit Labour support here in Wales.

So, the coverage this week may be about environmental policies, the vast amounts of money spent on public inquiries and vox pops with furious commuters, but the bigger picture is that democracy is a numbers game, and any future First Minister – whichever party they come from – will also struggle to get such big ticket items across the line without broad support from across the floor of the Senedd.

And though the CBI have valiantly been making the case, there is much more the wider business community could do to better understand politics and the importance of coalition building during campaigns if it is to successfully play it’s part in the, not so new, devolved Wales.


For a bird's eye view.
Am olwg oddi uchod.

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