NRW is the end result of a long process of bringing together powers that were once spread very thinly. Forty years ago, those powers belonged to no fewer than seven different authorities or types of authority:
- the Countryside Commission (based in London) dealt with landscape and recreation
- the Forestry Commission (based in London) dealt with forestry
- HM Factory Inspectorate (based in London) dealt with air pollution
- local councils dealt with waste disposal
- the Nature Conservancy (based in London) dealt with wildlife
- river authorities dealt with fisheries, land drainage and water pollution (Wales had seven)
- the Welsh Office (based in Cardiff, but actually run from London) dealt with the farmed environment
Now, for the first time, one organisation can look at the environment in Wales as a whole, in a joined-up way. It still has to deal with cross-border issues, but it has no single English equivalent. It will go on dealing with four separate bodies (the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission, Natural England, and parts of DEFRA). Could they be similarly unified? Well, yes, and it has been talked about, but given the size of England the resulting organisation would be a nightmare of administrative complexity. It could only work effectively through a network of regional offices, in touch with events on the ground, and this Coalition really doesn’t like doing regions. The Welsh example isn’t exactly replicable for England. It is replicable for Wessex.
The Welsh environment is a precious heritage, pivotal to defining what Wales is culturally. For us, the Wessex environment should be viewed as no less precious and pivotal. Yet under the London regime it isn’t deemed worthy of the same integrated approach to ensuring its protection. Given the pressure from London for endless overspill housing, that’s a catastrophe in the making.
Wales then is worthy of study, and often emulation. But let’s not jump to the conclusion that all’s well west of the Severn. Some of the devolved choices made haven’t worked out, with education and health policies in Wales coming in for some sustained criticism.
Most importantly, Wales, unlike Scotland, has failed to grasp what an opportunity devolution is to really do politics differently. It remains governed by a Labour Party that ultimately answers not to Wales but to Ed Miliband in London. Plaid Cymru, having led the campaign for self-government over the past century, can only sit and watch the opportunity slip away.
It is when Labour implements policies that are no different from the Coalition’s that you see how the promise of devolution has been subverted. Take the Planning Bill, published in December. Launching the Bill, housing and regeneration minister Carl Sargeant said that the Welsh planning system needs to be repositioned from regulating development to enabling appropriate development. He could have been quoting Osborne or Pickles. Regulatory capture again: forcing the regulators to act as cheerleaders for the industry and to ask no questions. In a typical piece of Labour nonsense, detailed rules are to be prescribed for delegating decisions to council officers, to avoid ‘inconsistency’ (as Labour describes local democratic choice). The Welsh Government also wants to regulate the size of planning committees (no fewer than 11 nor more than 21 members) and the procedures they follow. Has it really nothing better to do? Does it understand decentralisation and localism any better than the Coalition? It appears to understand them less.
Last month, just to demonstrate how far the plot has been lost, the Welsh Government revealed plans to plunge local government in Wales into its third comprehensive reorganisation in 40 years. County councils like Anglesey and Pembrokeshire, restored in 1996 after a 22-year gap, are now set to vanish again after little more than 17. Cutting the number of councils in Wales by half or more will also mean fewer councillors, less scrutiny of decision-making and more power for the bureaucracy. Meanwhile, since key services like police remain non-devolved in Wales, any talk of a better integrated public sector will continue to come up against constraints imposed by the London regime. You can blame the Tories under John Redwood for the 1996 reorganisation - and its failure to ask how, if at all, this would fit a devolved Wales - but you can blame all three main London parties for still not answering the question of what shape devolution will ultimately obtain.
Wales shows how devolution can mean better governance. It also shows how, left in the hands of Labour, devolution can fail to deliver its full potential. Constitutional change is a necessary step towards political change but it is not a sufficient step. Real change comes only with a willingness to reject the London parties at the ballot box.