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21 December 2021

Is Westminster best placed to make detailed funding decisions on devolution?

The Prime Minister seems determined to compete with politicians across the Union yet does not fully understand the devolved nations’ concerns.

Sometimes described as a “muscular unionist”, Boris Johnson wants his government’s presence to be felt more powerfully beyond England. Some initiatives, like decorating a government building in Cardiff with an eight-storey-high Union flag, draw attention to things the UK government already does in a devolved setting. Others, like building a bridge between Antrim and Scotland’s west coast or an M4 bypass in south Wales, see Johnson in direct competition with the devolved authorities.

The fable of the eight-storey flag lasted for a few months over the summer. Promoted in June, its £180,000 price tag meant it was scrapped by the end of September. In 2018, when Johnson proposed an Irish Sea bridge, its cost was estimated at £15bn. Despite the Prime Minister’s sustained support, the plug was finally pulled on this project by Peter Hendy, when the latter’s much-anticipated Union Connectivity Review was eventually published in November. In a feasibility report issued at the same time, the staggering estimate for the cost of the bridge was £335bn. Hendy also backed a Welsh government integrated multimodal transport plan to decongest south Wales, rather than moving immediately to implement the M4 bypass.  

People who find the Prime Minister’s grand plans appealing may be annoyed by his tendency to overpromise and under-deliver; for others, they were never more than overblown political rhetoric. A more serious question lurks beneath these positions: how does the UK government want the territorial constitution to work? Using Westminster’s raw power to make unilateral changes is one thing; doing so without a vision of the new “model Union” the Conservatives want to create is quite another.

Though the messaging is somewhat mixed, Johnson has taken a robust approach to devolved powers. Last year, he bypassed the normal requirement of devolved consent to push the UK Internal Market Act through Westminster. The Internal Market white paper was published in July 2020, about a month after Whitehall stopped all consultations with devolved officials. Michael Gove brushed aside the deep and sustained objections from the devolved authorities, instructing them that the changes amounted to a “power surge” for devolution.

If the UK Internal Market Act rubbed devolved governments up the wrong way, the UK government’s approach to negotiating common frameworks seems more co-operative. They provide governance arrangements for a series of technical policies – from emissions trading to hazardous substances, and public procurement to nutrition labels. Taken together, the frameworks may end up modifying the operation of the UK internal market in practice. If so, they could mollify some devolved concerns about its impact.

When spending public money, though, the Johnson administration seems determined to compete with devolved politicians. In October, Rishi Sunak allocated funds from Levelling Up and Community Ownership directly to schemes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Funded projects include a net-zero heritage living centre in Glasgow, £90,000 for refurbishing the Queen’s Ballroom in Tredegar and regenerating a health centre in Omagh. It is hard to imagine that these micro-investment choices are best made in Whitehall, or that selecting hyper-local projects is a good use of Treasury officials’ time.

Questions of public spending take us back to the bigger issues at stake in the Union Connectivity Review. Hendy did more than block the Prime Minister’s extravagant political plans: he also presented ambitious plans for UKNET – a “strategic transport network for the whole United Kingdom” – arguing that it would “serve the overall economic and social needs of the whole of the UK” much better.

The Union Connectivity Review is shot through with uncomfortable tensions. It makes strengthening the Union its top priority, at the expense of levelling up the whole UK. With a few important exceptions, it views UKNET from a decidedly English and south-eastern perspective.

Its treatment of rail links in south Wales illustrates the tensions. The report states that Cardiff is “well connected to London but is currently the UK’s least well directly connected major city”. Though significantly closer than London, trains take longer to reach Birmingham from Cardiff. The Review recommends a package of “improvements to increase connectivity and reduce journey times between Cardiff, Birmingham and beyond”. Improving this link could build better connections from Cardiff to Scotland as well as to the Midlands and north of England.  

So far, so good. But because Swansea’s connections to Bristol and London are not regarded as important for the Union, it gives a low priority to rail services west of Cardiff. The once-promised electrification of the London line through to Swansea remains a dead letter. Nor does the Review consider north-south rail connections, particularly for west Wales. Despite an emphasis on levelling-up, it concentrates on the most affluent parts of Wales, which are all close to the English border.

The Review states that “devolution has been good for transport where delivery has been devolved”. Yet Welsh rail infrastructure remains in Whitehall’s hands. Recently, Newport East’s MP, Jessica Morden, asked the Prime Minister why Wales’ 11 per cent of the UK rail network attracted only 2 per cent of infrastructure funding. The £96bn announced for investment related to High Speed 2 (HS2) will widen the gap. While Scotland and Northern Ireland will get a population-based increment to their budgets, HS2’s designation as an England and Wales project means no additional funding will flow to Wales.

Wales’ share of £96bn would be roughly £5bn – a transformative sum for the country’s transport infrastructure. Relatively modest in the context of the whole UK, a generous offer to improve connections within Wales could engage effectively with some of the UK’s most disadvantaged places. It might even strengthen their attachment to the Union.

Johnson dismissed Morden’s question, suggesting she had “completely failed” to look at Hendy’s Review and his “fantastic agenda for change and improvement, particularly in Wales”. His attitude to devolved nations’ concerns and his instinct to compete with devolved politicians – some equally eager for the scrap – sets a disputatious tone for relations across the UK. As his grandiose schemes collapse, the Prime Minister seems to have little vision for the Union or how he wants devolution to work. His muscular unionism amounts to little more than the showy performance of an SW1 bodybuilder.

Dan Wincott is professor of law and society at Cardiff University and research director of UK in a Changing Europe.

UK in a Changing Europe is an independent research institution looking at the relationship between the UK and the European Union (EU). It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

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