Territorial inequalities under devolution

Territorial inequalities under devolution: do Scottish and Welsh residents perceive a gap between capital cities and their local communities?

Published: 12 February 2024

One of the key goals of devolution is to bring institutions and representation closer to citizens. Creating an intermediate level of government between central and local authorities may also help effectively address spatial inequalities, thereby avoiding the overconcentration of power and resources typical of unitary states, or the hyper-fragmentation resulting from powerful but disconnected and small local authorities.

However, a recent survey I conducted in collaboration with Deltapoll, as part of a project funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust, reveals that, while many Scottish and Welsh residents regard devolution as generally beneficial for their respective nations, a much smaller share see it as positive for their local communities. Even more striking is the finding that overwhelming majorities of both Welsh and Scottish respondents view Edinburgh and Cardiff, the two capital cities, as the main winners of the devolution process. This suggests the existence of some ‘centre-periphery’ tensions within the two nations, a theme seldom covered in political and policy debates.

Three key questions

The survey, conducted in December 2023, asked two representative samples of more than 1000 respondents in Scotland and over 700 in Wales to state their agreement with three questions. The first question was whether they agreed with the statement that devolution has brought benefits to Scotland and Wales ‘as a whole’. The second question asked whether they agreed with the statement that the capital city, Edinburgh or Cardiff, has been positively affected by the creation of devolved institutions. Finally, the last question addressed the perceived impact of devolution on the respondents’ local communities.

Respondents think that Edinburgh and Cardiff are doing better than their local communities

57 percent of Scottish respondents and 47 percent of Welsh respondents agree or strongly agree with the statement that devolution has benefitted their respective nations. Although the Welsh share is less than 50 percent, it still represents a plurality of respondents, as only 29 percent disagree or strongly disagree, while 24 percent do not have a strong opinion in either direction. (Figures exclude ‘don’t know’ answers, which are around 4 percent of the total)

The discrepancy between Scotland and Wales almost completely disappears when the same question refers to the capital city. In that case, 65 percent of Scottish respondents and 63 percent of Welsh respondents perceive Edinburgh and Cardiff as benefitting significantly from the existence of devolved institutions. However, when the question involves respondents’ local communities, the share of positive views in Scotland shrinks to 43 percent, still a plurality but well below the 50 percent threshold. In Wales, this figure drops to 33 percent, and it is surpassed by the share of respondents who do not see devolution as beneficial to their local communities. Clearly, there is a diffuse feeling that devolution, aimed at addressing territorial disparities in the UK, may have contributed to creating new territorial divisions.

Of course, some respondents’ local communities are within the boundaries of the capital cities and this may contribute to a more positive view of the local impact of devolution. Among those living in Edinburgh, 57 percent agree that devolution has brought benefits to their local communities. However, this figure drops to 42 percent for those living outside Edinburgh. Similarly, in Wales, we observe a significant gap, with 43 percent of Cardiff residents seeing the positive effects of devolution on their local community, compared to only 30 percent of those living elsewhere. 

Linking perceptions to politics

There are interesting variations within the Scottish and Welsh populations. For instance, partisanship seems to be strongly correlated with perceptions of territorial inequality, and this aspect may affect future electoral dynamics in the lead-up to the next general election and devolved parliaments’ elections. For example, while 22 percent of Conservative voters believe that devolution has brought benefits to Scotland, and only 11 percent see a positive impact on their local communities, 42 percent of them view Edinburgh, the Scottish centre of power, as the big winner. On the other hand, SNP voters see devolution as almost equally beneficial for Scotland as a whole (81 percent) and Edinburgh (79 percent), and 66 percent of them also regard the existence of a Scottish Parliament and Government as positive for their local communities. Labour voters fall somewhere between the two parties, with more positive views of devolution than Conservatives (54 percent) but still perceiving a significant gap between Edinburgh and local communities in favour of the former (64 percent vs 37 percent).

In Wales, again, Conservative voters are clearly sceptical of devolution, only 34 percent and 20 percent of them considering it as beneficial for the whole of Wales and their local communities. On the other hand, almost 60 percent of Conservatives regard devolution as a process that has favoured the city of Cardiff. Unlike Scotland, the idea of a territorial imbalance in the positive effects of devolution is more broadly shared across parties. Although Labour and Plaid Cymru voters hold positive views toward devolution for Wales as a whole (59 percent and 70 percent, respectively), their enthusiasm cools when asked about their local communities, with positive answers dropping to well below 50 percent (42 percent and 44 percent, respectively). At the same time voters of both parties see Cardiff as much more positively affected by the existence of Welsh political institutions (69 per cent of Labour voters and an impressive 79 per cent of Plaid Cymru voters).

A replication of centre-periphery tensions and its possible implications

In summary, devolution not only shifted power from the centre of the British state to Scotland and Wales but also contributed to the creation and strengthening of new centres of power in Edinburgh and Cardiff. Therefore, while addressing or channelling tensions between Westminster and more ‘peripheral’ parts of the UK, devolved institutions risk (re-)creating new (real or perceived) gaps at lower territorial levels. A challenge for the political class of the two devolved nations is to bridge these gaps or, at the very least, to prevent them from expanding or being politicised. Failure to do so might strengthen calls for a reversal of the entire devolution process. Indeed, in Wales, there is still a sizable share of voters who think devolved institutions should be abolished altogether (one fifth of the respondents in the survey). My data suggest that, while only 2 percent of them see devolution as beneficial for their local communities, almost 40 percent perceive Cardiff as the primary beneficiary. These results are significant also in light of recent findings and recommendations published in the final report by the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales

Correlation is not causation, but after the EU referendum, it became apparent that diffuse perceptions of being ‘left-behind’ or disadvantaged compared to other places may produce a backlash capable of subverting established institutional and constitutional equilibria. If a complex process like Brexit, which was unthinkable until a decade ago, could partly occur as a consequence of this, it is not unreasonable to think that devolution may be exposed to future challenges to its legitimacy and, possibly, its very existence.

Davide Vampa is a Senior Lecturer in Territorial Politics and co-director of the Centre on Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh. He is Principal Investigator of the project “Exploring the Emergence of New Territorial Divides after Devolution: An Analysis of the Socio-Political Gap between Capital Cities and Peripheral Areas in Scotland and Wales” funded by the BA/Leverhulme Trust Small Research Grants scheme (SRG23\230264)