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Monday, June 1, 1998 Published at 16:02 GMT 17:02 UK

UK Politics: Talking Politics

A brand-new Assembly

BBC Wales Political Editor Glyn Mathias looks at the role of the new Welsh National Assembly.

At last the people of Wales know where their National Assembly is going to be. The Welsh Secretary, Ron Davies, has announced that it will be sited on the waterfront in Cardiff Bay.

[ image: Cardiff Bay, the site of the new assemsbly]
Cardiff Bay, the site of the new assemsbly
It has been a divisive issue. The original intention was for the Assembly to be housed in the Edwardian splendour of Cardiff City Hall. But at the last moment, negotiations with the city council broke down in an unseemly wrangle over costs.

Ron Davies then decided to open up the process to bids from all over Wales, the most competitive of which came from Swansea.

But the strong campaign by Swansea, with huge local support, was to be bitterly disappointed.

A centrepiece

[ image: Cardiff Bay - set to receive a 2b face lift]
Cardiff Bay - set to receive a 2b face lift
So what the people of Wales will now get is a brand-new, purpose-built Assembly chamber next to the Victorian Pierhead Building, which dates from the times when, thanks to the coal trade, Cardiff used to be one of the busiest ports in Britain.

It is likely to become the centrepiece of the 2bn regeneration of Cardiff Bay. By then the barrage across the Bay will have been completed and the Assembly will look out on a 500-acre freshwater lake.

It will take time to build. Just as in Edinburgh, there is to be a competition for the design of the building, run by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Such competitions do not have a good track record in Wales, given the fiasco over the design for the doomed Opera House.

This time it is going to be different, says Ron Davies, with an air of determined optimism. But it does mean that for at least two years, the Assembly will have to be housed in temporary accommodation.

After an inaugural session in the University of Wales in Cardiff, it will be housed in a building next to the designated site which is earmarked for the Assembly's administrative offices.

Little opposition to the Assembly

Meanwhile, the legislation establishing the National Assembly has reached the House of Lords in its passage through Parliament.

The narrow result of the referendum last September led to predictions that there would be more opposition to the Government of Wales Bill than the equivalent Scottish legislation.

But there has been a subtle change of political mood, not least from the Conservatives, who have now accepted the referendum result and are pitching themselves into the organisation and campaigning for the Assembly elections.

In fact, the Conservatives are ahead of the other parties in the selection of candidates.

A change of plan

[ image: Ron Davies (left) at the announcement of the assembly's site]
Ron Davies (left) at the announcement of the assembly's site
So there have been no upsets during the passage of the Bill, but Ron Davies has bowed to pressure on one key issue.

He has agreed to switch from a local government-type committee structure for the Assembly to a Westminster-style Cabinet system.

It was argued that a committee structure was a cumbersome method of reaching decisions, and there had been particular concern - not least from industry - as to whether this was the most efficient method of decision-making on such matters as inward investment.

Now the First Secretary, the Assembly equivalent of Prime Minister, will have the power to appoint his own Cabinet, which in turn will be answerable to the 60-member Assembly.

Only a year until launch

[ image: Construction is already underway]
Construction is already underway
The details of how the Assembly will go about its work are being examined by an Advisory Group set up by the Welsh Secretary to fast-track the process.

Unlike the Scottish Parliament, the Assembly will be up and running, vested with its powers, soon after the elections in May next year. So decisions have to be made before then about procedures such as the approval of the 7bn Welsh Office budget.

The initial report from the National Assembly Advisory Group made a series of recommendations, some of them over-complex, which now go out to public consultation.

What got the most headlines, however, was its proposal that the Assembly should only meet in Cardiff for three days a week, one day in plenary session and the other two in committees.

The rest of the time, the Assembly members would be attending regional committees around Wales as well as carrying out constituency work.

So the devolution process for Wales is largely on track. Not so, the Wales Labour Party, which has been derailed by an embarrassing controversy over the selection of candidates for the Assembly elections.

Labour's problem with women

In an attempt to achieve "gender balance", the party pressed ahead with a plan to "twin" constituency parties, which would jointly select one man and one woman.

Although this scheme has been going ahead in Scotland, it prompted a fierce reaction from about half the constituency parties in Wales, which objected to losing their traditional powers over the selection process.

The Lord Chancellor's judgement that "twinning" would be unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act sent the party into a further spin, and at the time of writing the Executive Committee has been unable to decide which way to proceed.

Meanwhile, Ron Davies has thrown his hat into the Assembly ring - his announcement that he wants to be an Assembly member makes him firm favourite to become First Secretary.

Apparently, he is being allowed by the Prime Minister to stay on in his present job as Secretary of State until the Assembly is up and running.

So the prospect in May or June 1998 is that Ron Davies as Secretary of State will hand over the powers of government in Wales to none other than Ron Davies, the new First Secretary of the National Assembly.

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