The Talking Point #14: “Closer ties”, but to what end?

(Title Image: ITV Wales)

Being Welsh Secretary must be one of the most boring jobs in the UK Cabinet.

Why? Well, since devolution nearly every tenant at Ty Gwydyr has had to make work for themselves while the Welsh Government and National Assembly render the post largely redundant.

The role of Welsh Secretary now is (I assume) to represent Welsh interests in non-devolved areas, but even then there are other UK Cabinet positions outranking them – the Home Secretary on policing, for example.

In light of that, what many Welsh Secretaries have done is to claim dominion over policy grey areas – where neither the Welsh or UK governments have outright control – in order to act as a go-between, effectively becoming Downing Street’s viceroy/Governor-General in Wales. There’s no better example of this than economic development and what are called “cross-border issues”.

The two have increasingly become blurred, with Alun Cairns the latest Welsh Secretary to talk up the creation of “cross-border growth corridors”: one in north Wales tied to Merseyside and Greater Manchester, and a “Severnside” economic region covering Cardiff, Newport and Bristol.

Alun is hosting a summit of business leaders and others later this month to outline what he describes as “collaboration” in economic and educational matters in order to compete with mayors in Birmingham and Manchester (Bristol also has a directly-elected mayor).

Cardiff and Bristol have also done well for themselves economically (Centre for Cities report – pdf) without the need for high level cross-border economic co-operation (Newport has catching up to do but is on the way to doing so).

For the last century or more, “strengthening links” between Wales and England has usually (but not always – particulary in terms of health where cross-border working actually produces results) meant one thing – wealth and talent leave Wales, the “unpleasant stuff” heads back the other way.

If you want recent examples, the eventual scrapping of Severn crossing tolls (not a bad idea, to be fair) is anticipated to turn south Monmouthshire and Newport into dormitory districts of Bristol as commuters are attracted by lower house prices. Bristol will benefit economically by retaining employers without losing employees, while (aside from estate agents) Wales deals with the schooling, health and assorted public funding requirements of the new residents.

The Swansea Bay tidal lagoon looks set to be dropped – which will probably see tidal lagoons further east near Cardiff and Newport dropped too – but plans for a gas-fired power station in Gower press ahead. From the south west, Wales will see tonnes of mud from Hinkley Point B nuclear power station dumped off the coast of Cardiff.

The UK Government have refused to devolve air passenger duty to Wales (even though they have done so to Scotland and Northern Ireland) because it may benefit Cardiff Airport at the expense of Bristol Airport.

So these “cross-border initiatives” tend to be a one-way street, usually flopping or rarely go beyond the unaccountable talking shop stage (such as the Mersey-Dee Alliance).

There is nevertheless a (tongue-in-cheek) solution to all these issues:

Move the Welsh border eastwards.

If these cross-border issues Conservative AMs and MPs spend so much time and effort on are so integral to Welsh politics and demand uncumbered political focus, then it makes logical sense for the Forest of Dean, Herefordshire, Shropshire and West Cheshire to be annexed to Wales and come under the auspices of the Welsh Government.

Wales would finally have a north-south rail link within the country without spending a single penny, issues relating to cross-border road projects (like the Pant & Llanymynech bypass) and health care would be resolved.

Anyone born in Chester, Shrewsbury, Hereford hospitals etc. would be Welsh and it would re-balance Wales by creating a major urban conurbations in the northeast (saved you some time, Ken) and central Wales as well as throwing in a bit of Tory gerrymandering for good measure.

Hell, why not chuck in The Wirral, Merseyside, Worcestershire, Bristol and Gloucestershire too – the “Prince of Wales” will actually live in Wales then, Dafydd! Only lines on a map, innit.

As things stand, it’s always Wales being economically partitioned and lumped in with the outer English provinces – the resulting policies and initiatives rarely doing much for those of us living west of Offa’s Dyke except in health (and even then we’re paying £255million for the privilege). Why not try the opposite for a change?

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