20 years of Welsh Devolution: Is there still a North / South divide in Wales?

Reporter:

Alan Davies

Twenty years on from the Welsh Devolution vote the perception that the Assembly which it established is biased towards the south remains a view held by many here in the north.

As the Referendum results were announced in 1997, constituency by constituency, Wales had to wait for the very last declaration before knowing the final result.

Of those who voted, 50.3 per cent supported devolution – a narrow majority in favour of 6,721 votes.

Wrexham was the first result in and it was a resounding No with 22,449 people disagreeing with the statement “I agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly”.

Flintshire followed Wrexham’s lead with 62.8 per cent voting No.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that many in the region do not feel that connection to the Assembly.

“For me Chester, Liverpool and Manchester just don’t feel that far away compared to Cardiff,” says Emily Francis-Eden, 23, of Mold, summing up the complicated relationship many North Walians feel with their capital.

“My personal experience having lived in both North and South Wales is the north feels friendlier to me. When I’ve been in the south it feels that if you speak English your quickly accused of being ‘a tourist’ and to put it simply it’s just difficult to get to Cardiff – it took me four-and-a-half hours last time in a car, which isn’t surprising as there isn’t a direct route.”

Talking to the BBC recently, Labour MP for Yns Mon Albert Owen said there was a “long way to go” to convince people in the north that the Assembly is for the whole of the country.

He added that AMs should consider sitting a couple of times a year in North Wales and that transport infrastructure should be one of the priorities.

Dr Jan Green, of the North Wales Business School at Wrexham Glyndwr, is another who believes transport links are central to the perception of a North-South divide.

She concluded a recent class by asking the Executive MBA students, who represent both public and a range of private sector businesses located in North Wales, the question is there still a North-South divide in Wales?

The response was an emphatic and unanimous ‘yes’.

Dr Green explains: “The students said you only have to look at the road network, the main road across south Wales is a motorway and it goes to London.

“The main road across North Wales is the A55. It is a dual carriageway. If there is one accident it brings all the traffic to a standstill and long delays. It needs to be upgraded.”

Dr Green adds: “In seeking how to resolve this perceived divide the students suggested North Wales should look at procurement issues and source from the region, rather than further afield, but it is a more complex issue than just transport.

“The focus has shifted away from manufacturing and it is debatable whether food, drink and tourism are sectors that can replace what has been lost in the region over recent years.”

Commuters can be in Liverpool or Manchester within an hour by train from Wrexham General, the busiest railway station in North Wales in terms of passenger numbers. A train to Cardiff takes about three hours.

London is also more accessible by train from Chester – another hub for commuters just over the English border on the same line – than Cardiff.

“Every time you put the TV on it’s always ‘Cardiff this and Cardiff that’ and we seem to get very little coverage in the media up here,” said Caroline Johnson, owner of The Bookshop in Mold. “My issue with devolution is it often seems to be neither one thing nor the other.

“For example with tax, business rates go to Cardiff but income tax goes to the Government in London.

“You can’t sort out either system when you’re paying to two different governments so it would be nice to sort out the business rates on the basis of earnings you take in a shop, but you can’t because those earnings go to Westminster.

“I would like to see business rates used more in my community rather than being sent to Cardiff.”

She adds: “I feel very separate from Cardiff. I’ve always lived in Mold and look to here as my home.

“Considering so much is down in Cardiff it is very difficult to get to.

“I sent my daughter to a Welsh school so it’s not that I don’t feel Welsh. I just don’t feel we get everything Cardiff gets.”

The Welsh Government has repeatedly denied North Wales is missing out, saying it has spent £135 per head in North Wales on road schemes compared to £118 in South-East Wales since 2011 – along with its continued pressure on the Department for Transport for the electrification of the North Wales main line.

The Government also pointed to a number of capital projects supported in North Wales, including the £2.7 million Coleg Cambria/
Airbus and Aerospace Training facility on Deeside, and the £30m Holywell Learning Campus.

Two decades on from the referendum, Delyn AM Hannah Blythyn feels the North-South divide is a thing of the past.

“At the time of the 1997 Devolution referendum, I was just 18 and heading to university,” she says. “The referendum was the second time I’d ever been able to vote. The first time was just four months before in the election that saw a landslide Labour victory.

“Like many in our area, I was unsure how a devolved Assembly based in the south of Wales would make a difference for us in North Wales.

“But any fears I had have been alleviated over the years as we’ve seen successive Welsh Labour Government’s build a fairer and stronger Wales – introducing free prescriptions, free bus passes for the over 60s and kept our NHS free from privatisation, to name a few.

“Fast forward to the 2011 referendum for full legislative powers when Flintshire joined the majority of Wales to vote Yes.

“Following this, Welsh Labour promised a decade of delivery.”

She adds: “Despite record-breaking cuts to the Welsh Government budget by the UK Tory-led Government, these promises are being kept – preventing our young people from being priced out of education and retaining EMA, free school breakfasts, investing £100m to improve school standards, including the state of the art Holywell Learning Campus, abolishing right to buy and building the first council houses in a generation as we’re witnessing in Flint right now and much more.”

Ms Blythyn is keen to highlight some of the forthcoming projects heading for North Wales and adds they do much to dispel the perceived divide.

“Big investment is in the pipeline for North East Wales – improvements to the A55, a North East Wales Metro, expanding our tourism offer, support for a North Wales growth deal that will give our young people the skills to succeed and basing the new advanced manufacturing institute and Development Bank for Wales in the region,” she said.

“It remains my priority to champion our corner and make sure that devolution delivers its just rewards for our part of Wales.”

Ms Blythyn’s views are backed up by Wrexham AM Lesley Griffiths, who believes Wales to be “a stronger, more confident country thanks to devolution”.

“The notion of a North-South divide is a difficult perception to counteract, but I firmly believe the level of investment experienced in Wrexham and the surrounding areas is greater than if we had voted ‘No’ in 1997,” she says.

“For example, I remain unconvinced a Wales Development Bank, town centre business hub and North-East Wales Metro would have been instigated in Wrexham without a National Assembly for Wales.”

Perhaps the last word should go to Selwyn Evans, 61, an honorary Druid who runs Mold’s Siop y Siswrn shop with his wife Ann.

He has worked tirelessly for the Welsh language and culture for four decades.

Mr Evans says: “I think it is certainly the case we are recognised more now in North-East Wales by Cardiff than we were 20 years ago by London.

“The capital city of Wales is Cardiff and yes it is in the south, but it has to be somewhere and we should look to it as or capital and create stronger links We need a Welsh identity and a lot of people in North-East Wales feel that despite not speaking the language.”

l What do you think? 20 years on from Welsh Devolution, does the North-South divide remain? Email us at new@leaderlive.co.uk

Email:

alan.davies@nwn.co.uk

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