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TONY TRAVERS - ENGLAND HAS A GREAT DEAL TO LEARN FROM WELSH DEVOLUTION

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Wales is about to take another step along the road to full devolution. And quite right too. Labour's 2005 manifesto...
Wales is about to take another step along the road to full devolution. And quite right too. Labour's 2005 manifesto and the recent Queen's speech stated that the government intends to give Cardiff a greater degree of self-government. The devolution bandwagon - which briefly lost all four of its wheels

in the north-east of England - is now back on the road to Cardiff.

As recently as 1981, Welsh local government was run, jointly with England's, by the Department of the Environment. The national administration of planning, housing, local taxation and the then Rate Support Grant for, say, Gwynedd, was handled for 'England and Wales' in Marsham Street, SW1. From 1981-82 onwards the Welsh Office took over responsibility for local government in the Principality and then, in 1999, the Welsh Assembly government assumed control.

In the six years since Cardiff took over, the case for further transfers of power from Westminster has intensified. In particular, the Richard Commission made the case for a move to Scottish-style legislative powers and the possibility of giving Wales the opportunity to vary its rate of income tax. Government by the Welsh Assembly has produced a divergence from practice in England, notably in the decision to use fewer targets and other elements of public service 'modernisation'. On the other hand, a revaluation of the council tax base took place this year, including the introduction of a ninth value band.

This is not to say there have been no problems. There has been criticism of the quality of some public services in Wales. The health service, notably, appears to have improved less than in England. But the blame for this poor performance has fallen directly on First Minister Rhodri Morgan, not on the Department of Health in London. As in Scotland, the media has understood the success or failure of hospitals, schools and other provision can no longer be pinned on Tony Blair and his ministers.

All of which prompts the question of why, within England, political control has continued to drift in the opposite direction. English education funding has been centralised. Whitehall departments burden themselves with greater and greater public expectations. Yet, just to the west of Offa's Dyke lies a country which, within a cultural and political history virtually identical to England's, is now allowed to run its own government. It does this while remaining a fully-fledged part of the UK.

The Mayor of London will, presumably, want to encourage Mr Morgan in the hope that the capital can follow its Welsh counterpart. English local government can also make a case - based on the evidence from Wales - that the devolution of power, at the very least, does not damage the country or its services. Tony Blair's ministers can be offered an opportunity to liberate themselves. There are powerful arguments to support Wales in its bid for greater freedom.

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