If I understand the Welsh Tories correctly, they're against devolving power over some aspects of housing to Wales because they think that the Assembly might use the powers in ways which the Tories would not support. In this particular case, the bone of contention appears to be the badly misnamed 'Right to Buy', which they are afraid Wales might abolish given her own way.
I wonder if they would be consistent, however. If the so-called Right to Buy had already been abolished in England, and there was a chance of re-introducing it in Wales, would they still oppose the devolution of the relevant powers? Somehow, I doubt it.
Opposing the transfer of powers because they might not like the outcome appears at first to be just another confirmation that they simply don't 'get' devolution, but there is a serious point here, which they might be in danger of stumbling on, even if only by accident. How do we decide which issues should or should not be devolved?
The responses of the two extremes on the national question are obvious. For those who oppose devolution, the answer is nothing; for the nationalists, it’s everything. It’s so easy for them to answer, because they both start with a fixed idea about the ‘right’ unit for government. But I find neither response to be particularly enlightening - and I have a question for each.
To those who believe that it is vital that certain areas of policy should remain with the larger unit, for the sake of strength and consistency, I would ask, ‘So why aren’t you proposing transferring those powers to Brussels?” Surely, if consistency and scale are so important, differences between the UK and France are as intolerable and unnecessary as differences between England and Wales?
And to those who believe that everything should be devolved to the smaller unit, I would ask, “So would you be happy to devolve the decision to Ynys Môn?” If local decision making and democracy is so important, why should things have to be the same across Wales?
I tend to start from a ‘localist’ viewpoint, and my personal disappointment with devolution to date is that there seems to be a centralising tendency within Wales, rather than any real effort to empower local communities and counties. My presumption would always be for taking decisions at as local a level as possible, and involving people in them as far as possible; but how to decide which cannot or should not be taken locally?
On pragmatic grounds, I don’t think it would be helpful to go back to the pre-railway times when Cardiff and Newport could set their own clocks for instance. Neither does it seem to me to make a lot of sense to allow different counties in Wales to decide on which side of the road people should drive – although the UK opt-out from most of the rest of the world on this one doesn’t seem terribly logical either. Those are obvious examples where consistency is important for purely practical reasons, but not all issues are as black and white as this.
The second problem with devolving as much as possible to the lowest levels is how you achieve a fair distribution of resources. There can surely be no real question that, the bigger the unit, the more resources it potentially has at its disposal, and the more it can do to switch resources from the wealthiest to the poorest. I’ve always felt this (the idea of a fairer distribution of wealth) to be one of the strongest potential arguments against devolving power downwards. (It does not, of course, follow that having the ‘power’ to do something means that it always gets done effectively, or even at all, and that is one reason why the argument does not stand up as strongly as it could).
The other problem with local decision-taking is that it might lead to decisions with which I don't agree - and this is where the Tories have stumbled on a point which worries me. One of the greatest and most courageous decisions taken by the UK Parliament was the abolition of the death penalty. Yet, I am fairly confident that, if this decision was given to the people to take, we would not only still have the death penalty, we would probably reinstitute flogging as well. So what if, in devolving maximum power to the lowest possible level, some areas/nations/ countries (delete according to prejudice) end up taking decisions which I would find completely unacceptable? That is, surely, precisely the point which the Tories are raising.
I don’t know what the answer to my question is – but I am absolutely convinced that it’s not the one that the Tories seem to be pursuing, which is that you should not trust people to take their own decisions unless you are certain that they will take the ‘right’ ones. Devolving decision-making closer to the people can sometimes be a difficult road to follow, but that doesn’t make it the wrong road.