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Governance of Wales: Who is responsible for what?


Politics in the UK

The United Kingdom is a unitary state, where power is centralised in a sovereign parliament at Westminster. During 1998 and 1999, the UK Parliament devolved certain powers and responsibilities to other elected bodies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

In Wales, these powers are vested in the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government; however, the UK Parliament and Government still have significant powers in relation to Wales and have considerable influence over Welsh affairs.

Through the UK’s membership of the European Union, Wales is also subject to decisions about legislation and policy made in Brussels which is applicable to all 27 member states.

Further details about each of these institutions and an outline of their different powers and responsibilities are included below. Also included are two case studies to illustrate who makes decisions relating to Wales and how those decisions are made in practice.

The European Union (EU)

Through the EU’s two core treaties (the Treaty on the European Union and the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union) which were last updated by the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, the UK has empowered the institutions of the EU (The European Council / Council of Ministers, the European Commission and the European Parliament) to make and adopt laws.

These laws are made in order to achieve the progressive integration and harmonisation of economic and political systems and the establishment of a single market within EU member states based on the free movement of goods, people, money and services.

In certain policy areas, member states have transferred all their law-making authority to the EU. These exclusive areas of EU competence are:

  • customs union;

  • the establishing of the competition rules necessary for the functioning of the internal market;

  • monetary policy for the Member States whose currency is the euro;

  • the conservation of marine biological resources under the common fisheries policy; and

  • common commercial policy.

In other areas, responsibility for law-making is shared between the EU and national governments. These are:

  • the internal market;

  • social policy;

  • economic, social and territorial cohesion;

  • agriculture and fisheries, excluding the conservation of marine biological resources;

  • environment;

  • consumer protection;

  • transport;

  • trans-European networks;

  • energy;

  • area of freedom, security and justice; and

  • common safety concerns in public health matters.

Additionally, areas of supporting, co-ordinating or complementary action between member states and the EU include:

  • the protection and improvement of human health;

  • industry;

  • culture;

  • tourism;

  • education, youth, sport and vocational training;

  • civil protection; and

  • administrative co-operation.

The core treaties of the EU also provide for the co-ordination of economic and employment policies between member states and the EU in addition to the development of common foreign and security policies.

UK Government and Parliament

Apart from those areas which are the sole responsibility of the EU, the UK Parliament remains sovereign in relation to all UK law and can still legislate, in theory and in fact, in all areas relating to Wales. By convention however, it does not legislate for matters which have been devolved to the National Assembly or Welsh Ministers without first obtaining the consent of the National Assembly through a mechanism known as a Legislative Consent Motion (PDF, 200KB). This position is laid out in the Memorandum of Understanding (Word, 279KB) which was agreed by the UK Government, Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers and the Northern Ireland Executive Committee on 8 June 2011:

The United Kingdom Parliament retains authority to legislate on any issue, whether devolved or not. It is ultimately for Parliament to decide what use to make of that power. However, the UK Government will proceed in accordance with the convention that the UK Parliament would not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters except with the agreement of the devolved legislature. The devolved administrations will be responsible for seeking such agreement as may be required for this purpose on an approach from the UK Government.

Examples of areas which have not been devolved to the National Assembly include:

  • policing and criminal justice;

  • foreign affairs, defence and security issues; and

  • welfare, benefits and social security.

Taxation, apart from powers to set council tax and business rates, also remains the responsibility of the UK Government and Parliament. Responsibility for fiscal and macroeconomic policy and public expenditure allocation across the UK lies with HM Treasury. Funding for the devolved administrations is determined within spending reviews, alongside that for UK departments. This takes the form of a grant from the relevant Secretary of State and is voted by the UK Parliament.

National Assembly for Wales

The National Assembly has the right to pass laws (known as Assembly Acts), but only in areas where those powers have been expressly conferred. These powers are outlined in the following 21 Subjects of Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act 2006:

  • Agriculture, Forestry, Animals, Plants and Rural Development

  • Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings

  • Culture

  • Economic Development

  • Education and Training

  • Environment

  • Fire and Rescue Services and Fire Safety

  • Food

  • Health and Health Services

  • Highways and Transport

  • Housing

  • Local Government

  • National Assembly for Wales

  • Public Administration

  • Social Welfare

  • Sport and Recreation

  • Tourism

  • Devolved Taxes

  • Town and Country Planning

  • Water and Flood Defence

  • Welsh Language

If a policy area is not specified within one or more of the Subjects listed above (or if it is clearly specified as an exception or a restriction to the National Assembly’s powers within the 2006 Act), the National Assembly cannot legislate in relation to it.

These legislative powers mirror the executive responsibilities of the Welsh Ministers who, as members of the Welsh Government, are accountable to the National Assembly for their decisions and actions.

Local authorities in Wales

Local authorities provide statutory services as set out in legislation and are empowered by laws made at the UK and Welsh levels to provide other services. They provide some of these services directly, work in partnership with other organisations, and commission others to provide services on their behalf. They receive around 80 per cent of their funding directly from the Welsh Government.

Although the services provided by local authorities are subject to laws, strategies and targets set and monitored mainly by the Welsh Government, they do have discretion in providing and delivering those services in their areas.

The responsibilities of local authorities are extensive and are found in numerous pieces of primary and secondary legislation passed by the UK Parliament and the National Assembly. The list below provides a non-exhaustive overview of their general powers and responsibilities:

  • civil registration services (births, deaths and marriages);

  • coroners;

  • cremation and burials;

  • economic development and regeneration (including powers to provide grants and support businesses);

  • education (including the provision of nursery, primary, secondary, full-time 16-19 year old education and post 19 year old education apart from Higher Education);

  • environment (including public health, animal welfare, noise and light pollution, dog fouling, abandoned vehicles, maintenance of grounds and parks and litter etc.);

  • emergency planning;

  • fire and rescue services;

  • food safety;

  • certain highways (under provisions outlined in the Highways Act 1980);

  • housing;

  • leisure and recreation;

  • libraries;

  • licensing (including responsibility for alcohol licensing, taxis, public entertainment and gambling);

  • national parks;

  • planning;

  • social services;

  • strategic planning;

  • transport;

  • trading standards; and

  • waste.



Case study 1: Roads in Wales

The European Union

As a member state of the EU, the UK is subject to a variety of EU laws that seek to harmonise arrangements relating to roads and road use between all member states. Recent EU Directives include provisions relating to the issuing of driving licences, with the aim to improve mutual recognition between member states and so make it easier for people to move within the EU.

The EU also aims to influence the policies of the UK Government by publishing non-legally binding reports and communications in order to develop the integration of roads and transport policy across EU member states and to encourage best practice in certain areas of transport policy, such as road safety and the technical standards of vehicles.

The EU also works with the UK and other member states to develop the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T), which seeks to establish a single transport network that integrates land, sea and air routes throughout the EU.

UK Government and Parliament

The UK Government through the Department for Transport and its executive agencies (such as the DVLA, Driving Standards Agency, Vehicle and Operator Services Authority and the Vehicle Certification Agency) are responsible for national speed limits, road signs, vehicle construction and use regulations, vehicle testing and licensing, and driver testing and licensing (areas which are exceptions to the National Assembly’s current legislative powers).

As crime, policing and justice are all reserved to Westminster, all aspects of policing and road traffic offences also remain the responsibility of the UK Government.

The UK Government is held to account by both houses of the UK Parliament who also retain the right to legislate on all areas relating to roads and vehicles throughout the UK (within the framework outlined by the EU). Should the UK Parliament wish to legislate in an area that is within the scope of the National Assembly’s powers, convention requires it first to gain the consent of the National Assembly (through a Legislative Consent Motion).

Welsh Government

The Welsh Government has powers over the following areas relating to roads in Wales:

  • It is the Highway Authority for all trunk roads in Wales (i.e. all motorways and certain A roads) and is responsible for the maintenance of those roads. This maintenance is carried out on behalf of the Welsh Government by three Trunk Road Agencies – one each for north, mid and south Wales – which act in partnership with local authorities within their area.

  • It is responsible for the management of traffic on all Welsh trunk roads.

  • It is responsible for renewing certain roads, bridges and other structures and for constructing new roads and improving existing ones.

  • Welsh Ministers also have powers over road pricing on Welsh trunk roads.

The Welsh Government is also required to publish and periodically review a Welsh Transport Strategy, which sets out policies for the safe, integrated, sustainable, efficient and economic transport facilities to and from Wales. These objectives are delivered through the Welsh Government’s National Transport Plan (which includes details of major road schemes) and through Regional Transport Plans produced by groups of local authorities in the regional transport consortia.

The Welsh Government also provides additional traffic monitoring services through the Traffic Wales website and provides information about public transport in Wales through its Traveline Cymru service.

National Assembly for Wales

The National Assembly ensures that Welsh Ministers fulfil their duties in relation to the above by holding their decisions to account through Plenary and Committee meetings and through the tabling of written and oral questions to Welsh Ministers. The National Assembly’s legislative powers also reflect the executive powers of Welsh Ministers in this area. Subject 10: Highways and Transport of Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act 2006 states that the National Assembly may pass laws in relation to:

Highways, including bridges and tunnels; Streetworks; Traffic management and regulation; Transport facilities and services.

Welsh local authorities

Local authorities retain a range of responsibilities in relation to roads including:

  • Road network management duties;

  • parking management, and

  • public transport monitoring.

Local authorities are also the Highway Authorities with responsibility for the maintenance and improvement of non-trunk roads (those roads which are not motorways or main A roads). As a result, they can also acquire land for the construction of a highway which is to be maintained at the public expense other than a trunk road.

Local authorities also have certain functions in relation to traffic control, including the setting of local speed limits and the control and responsibility as to the placing of traffic signs.

Each local authority also belongs to one of the four regional transport consortia and contributes to a Regional Transport Plan.


Case study 2: Waste management and recycling

The European Union

The European Union has a role in co-ordinating the efforts of its Member states to reduce the disposal of waste by preventing the production of some waste, by regulating the disposal of some wastes and by encouraging recycling methods that are both economically and ecologically viable.

Specifically, the EU has, through its Directive on Waste, set an overarching legal framework for the treatment of waste which aims to protect the environment and human health through the prevention of the harmful effects of waste generation and waste management. It requires member states to:

  • take measures for the treatment of their waste in line with a ‘waste hierarchy’;

  • carry out the treatment of waste themselves (or co-operate to establish a network of waste disposal facilities if necessary);

  • issue permits to establishments who undertake waste treatment in order to monitor and control operations; and

  • establish one or more management plans to cover the whole territory of the Member State concerned (which will be communicated by Member States to the EU Commission).

UK Government and Parliament

Most decisions and responsibilities relating to the management of waste in Wales have been devolved to the National Assembly and Welsh Ministers. The UK Government, through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and the UK Parliament are, as a result, responsible for the corresponding arrangements in relation to waste management in England.

The responsibility for disposal of nuclear waste and hazardous radioactive substances however (apart from the disposal of very low level radioactive waste moved from site) remains the responsibility of the UK Government, through the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

Defra co-ordinates programmes at an England and Wales level to provide a platform for evidence-based policy making. Defra also provides evidence to support the needs of the Department for Energy & Climate Change (DECC); the Welsh Government; and associated delivery bodies, including the Environment Agency for England and Wales.

Should the UK Parliament wish to pass a law in relation to waste or recycling that would apply in Wales, it would need the consent of the National Assembly before doing so (through a Legislative Consent Motion).

Welsh Government

The Welsh Government is responsible for setting out detailed recycling, composting and re-use targets for local authorities in order to achieve their stated aim of recycling at least 70 per cent of Wales’ waste by 2025. The Welsh Government is also responsible for the setting and monitoring of local authority landfill targets under the EU’s Directive on Landfill. In working towards this, the Welsh Government works within the framework set out by the EU’s Directive on Waste and Directive on Landfill to:

  • set landfill targets for local authorities;

  • monitor progress; and

  • produce municipal waste management reports on compliance amongst local authorities.

The Welsh Government also has the power to minimise the disposal of materials which has the greatest impact on Wales’ ecological footprint, namely food waste, paper and cardboard, wood, metals and plastic. It currently does this by:

  • facilitating the development of waste treatment facilities for municipal waste as an alternative to landfill sites; and

  • introducing plastic carrier bag charges to encourage the use of single-use carrier bags.

The powers of Welsh Ministers to implement these proposals come in part from the Waste (Wales) Measure 2010, which was passed by the National Assembly in December 2010 and provides Welsh Ministers with powers to set certain recycling targets for local authorities and enables Welsh Ministers to ban or restrict certain wastes from being disposed of in landfill sites.

National Assembly for Wales

In holding the Welsh Government to account, the National Assembly ensures that the Government’s recycling and landfill targets are appropriate for the local authorities concerned and that the Welsh Government is effectively monitoring compliance and implementing its own policies correctly and reasonably.

The National Assembly also has wide-ranging powers to pass legislation in relation to the environment. In relation to waste, Subject 6: Environment of Schedule 7 to the 2006 Government of Wales Act 2006 provides that the National Assembly can pass laws that relate to the collection, management and disposal of waste.

Welsh local authorities

Local authorities in Wales have a statutory responsibility to collect and dispose of municipal waste. This includes:

  • regular household collections;

  • recycling collections;

  • collection of bulky items;

  • waste received at civic amenity sites; and

  • waste collected from non-household sources.

Local authorities also have a statutory duty to reduce the amount of waste that is sent to landfill.

These responsibilities are monitored and regulated by the Welsh Government who also work in partnership with each local authority to develop sustainable waste treatment facilities.



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