Last week, a new Bill was introduced in the Welsh Assembly with the stated aim of “reinvigorating democracy in Wales”. Headline writers leapt on the proposal to give under-16s the vote in Welsh elections and it’s this that has dominated discussions about the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill.
But it’s the other proposals that give us a glimpse into how the legislature sees itself 20 years after its establishment.
A much-talked about name change is proposed – to Senedd (Welsh for parliament). The Assembly building is already called the Senedd and it’s hoped the change will help clarify the institution’s role in Welsh politics. Symbolically, it will also bring it on an equal footing with its Scottish counterpart.
The title Assembly Member will get a similar makeover. The current proposal is for members to become Member of the Senedd (or MS). However, there is certain to be debate about this as the abbreviation in Welsh – AS – is the same as the Welsh abbreviation for Members of Parliament in Westminster.
There are also changes to when candidates must resign prohibited roles. Currently, holders of certain roles (for example, some civil service positions) must resign before they stand for election to the Assembly. The new rules will require resignations only if successfully elected.
Job sharing in the Lords will come to an end. Members of the House of Lords will be required to take a leave of absence from Westminster if they are elected at Welsh elections. The aim of both changes is to make it easier to stand for election and to clarify that, if successful, the new role should be the individual’s sole focus.
These constitutional changes will require a supermajority of 40 of the 60 AMs to pass. Perhaps in the spirit of co-operation, the legislation was introduced by the Llywydd – the Assembly’s presiding officer – and not a Welsh Government minister. It’s another sign that this is about clarifying the role of the institution and not an executive power-grab.
Coincidentally, the same day the reforming Bill was announced, the Assembly voted on amendments to its Development of National Significance regime. On 1 April, Wales gets a host of new planning powers, devolving consent for power stations up to 350MW and associated overhead electricity lines up to 132kV.
And last year, among much fanfare, the Welsh Government was granted limited tax-raising and varying powers – supposedly the first Welsh taxes for 800 years. All of these changes came about through the Wales Act 2017, which fundamentally changed the constitutional settlement in Wales. It was this same Act that gave the Assembly the powers to make the changes proposed in the new Bill.
When you take these new powers into account, the apparently cosmetic changes included in the Bill take on a different hue. They represent a legislature that is growing in confidence. The news release accompanying the Bill openly states that it seeks to make the Senedd the “primary democratic institution in Wales”. That’s an unambiguous mission statement and a challenge to the current status quo. And this is only the start of the process – there is already talk of the next phase of legislation, which would include increasing the number of members to between 80 and 90.
It remains to be seen how these changes will play out in reality – or even if the Bill will pass. But what is clear is that politicians in Cardiff Bay intend wield increased powers and that should make all of us working in the built environment pay attention.