Friday, 26 August 2016

Lack of ambition for our economy

One thing you expect from an organisation called the North Wales Economic Ambition Board is, er, ambition for North Wales.

The board consists of all six local councils, the North Wales Business Council and four higher and further education institutes.

Its latest publication - A Growth Vision for the Economy of North Wales - talks of "Team North Wales" building a "single, joined-up vision for economic and employment growth for North Wales".

In truth, it's a shallow re-hash of ideas that see the North Wales economy begging for crumbs from to the "Northern Powerhouse" table.

It concentrates on existing strengths and expertise along the A55/A483 corridor but has nothing to say about the economy of the rural hinterland and how we can develop an economy that reflects our geography rather than seek to move people to jobs.

It talks in bland marketing-speak. In imagining Wales in 2035 it states "the economic advantages of being positioned between major economic centres such as Manchester and Dublin will be maximised". How? North Wales is a transit zone for trade and exports between those two cities and it's difficult to see how that will change.

The thrust is, in fact, largely about improving cross-border transport links with details of spending on improving the A55 and electrifying the north Wales rail line taking up the lion's share of the £1.6 bn spend listed under transport.

This dovetails neatly with the board's cross-border focus, which talks of "decisive and co-operative joint planning with Regional Partnerships such as Cheshire and Warrington". Why Warrington would want to plan anything with North Wales when it has Manchester and Liverpool in closer proximity is a mystery, unless it's to provide a commuting workforce that has good transport access to relatively cheap housing in a beautiful location.

True, there are aspects to commend - the focus on improving high-skilled jobs, retaining workers and developing specialist hubs by building on existing centres of excellence in terms of workplaces and colleges/universities. North Wales has got a lot going for it and we should be rightly proud of that.

However, there is precious little ambition on display if there are more references to Warrington in a vision than Bala or Blaenau or Denbigh or Flint.

It also misses several tricks to promote some of our other unique strengths:

• Nothing to suggest that promoting micro-businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship among local people can be a way forward
• No pathway or support for existing small local businesses to grow, a la Moneypenny or Ifor Williams Trailers, into medium-sized companies as outlined by Prof Karel Williams in this report. These medium-sized companies that grow organically, the Mittelstand, are the basis of Germany's strong and resilient economic model.
• No mention of social enterprises or cooperatives, despite the long tradition in rural Wales of such organisations and the more recent growth in the North, which has a plethora of community coop pubs, village shops, leisure centres, breweries and even a professional football club.
• No mention of our unique and respected food and drink industry and how that could be the basis for greater manufacturing output
• No mention of tourism, allegedly the largest employer in Wales. North Wales has been over-reliant on seasonal, low-paid tourist employment for too long which has skewed the economy. There is an opportunity, through adventure tourism that is year-round and involves higher spend, to create a more balanced economy in the hands of local people who will keep the money in the local economy rather than see it seep out.
• No vision for ensuring the rural economy can thrive by focussing on sustainable agriculture, small businesses and innovation rather than over-reliance on building new nuclear power plants and empty industrial units.
• No strategy or targets for local councils, health boards and other public bodies to ensure a greater proportion of the Welsh pound is retained within the region by a more progressive procurement policy or by better collaboration with local firms.
• No mention of renewing or transforming struggling town centres - from Holyhead to Wrexham traditional shopping centres are struggling under the combined pressures of online shopping, out-of-town retail parks and high rent and rates. Retail is an important part of the local economy and thriving towns are essential to economic success but they do not rate a mention.

Renewable energy gets a mention - as well it should given the potential for North Wales to continue to be a net exporter of electricity. But, while both Wylfa Newydd and Trawfynydd are touted for nuclear plants there's no mention of the more realistic and safer option of tidal lagoons and other clean energy options.

It's a report that looks as if it's been written in the 1970s in its desire to see people travel great distances to work. It ignores the growing cost of commuting, growing job insecurity and instability, the almost daily snarl-ups on the A55 and A483 and the desire of many to improve their work-life balance - all mitigate against long commutes. The wider environment, which should be central to any sustainable economic vision, doesn't get a look in.

Any transport "vision" that fails to mention buses is largely redundant in North Wales and integrated transport talks vaguely of "a regional passenger transport network that fully integrates transport modes". One has to ask, given the general thrust of the document, which region?

"Team North Wales" as a concept is laudable - we need a clear vision to deliver a stronger economy here in the North. But one that is fixated with chasing after the "Northern Powerhouse", when that increasingly looks to be moving further away from this area, is doomed to failure.

North Wales needs ambition to improve its economy and communities. Sadly this board seems devoid of ambition.

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