(Title Image: Wales Online)
The hardest policy nut to crack in Wales over the last 35 years or so has been how to get an economic and social turn around in the south Wales valleys.
Billions of EU, UK and Welsh Government pounds have been spent, loads of Third Sector bodies and social projects have been introduced or supported and several key regeneration projects have been kickstarted – yet the problems remain.
They’ve been promised the earth, but The Valleys remain way behind in terms of productivity, economic inactivity, educational attainment, relative poverty and opportunities.
With EU funding set to dry up and the Welsh Government’s own budget under strain, the new delivery plan for the Valleys Task Force was published in the last few weeks (pdf). Its key priorities include (as a snapshot):
- Priority 1: Employment – Establish seven “strategic hubs”, relocate public sector bodies, release public land for development, maximise the foundational economy (more here), improve energy efficiency, invest in infrastructure such as the Metro and A465 dualling.
- Priority 2: Public Services – Improved child development support, increase community use of school buildings, a new access to healthcare & medicine programme, address poor air quality.
- Priority 3: Community – Create a Valleys Landscape Park, pilot free car parking in town centres, community-owned renewable energy schemes, attract and support events/festivals.
In terms of measuring whether all this will work or not, there are 46 well-being targets, but the only specific targets are to create 7,000 jobs by 2021, 2,000 of those being via entrepreneurship support and support for growing businesses.
The first impression is that this is quite modest compared to previous plans for the Valleys. 7,000 jobs aren’t that many in the grand scheme of things when you consider there are around 144,200 economically inactive people resident in south Wales valleys authorities in 2017 (excluding full-time students).
The days of a German or Japanese company coming along, building a big box on cheap moorland, employing 900 people earning low-but-enough-to-live-on wages doing routine manual tasks are over. The factories are now being built in eastern Europe, East Asia and in the not-too-distant future the tasks will be automated.
So the plan rightly focuses, economically, on what the Valleys can do for itself (“the foundational economy“). A localised economy with short supply chains will be far more grounded in the realities of a post-industrial, de-growth area like the Valleys instead of the highly globalised one that’s perhaps more suited to the M4 and A55 corridor.
The second impression is that this is a greener vision for the Valleys than previous ones by incorporating some elements of Leanne Wood’s 2012 Greenprint. There’s a greater focus on renewable energy and making the most of the environment – which is one of the area’s main trump cards. The problem is whether the locals actually take time to appreciate it so it doesn’t become yet another natural resource in Wales that serves to benefit someone else.
Thirdly, while the Welsh Government have been keen to involve valley communities in the process from the beginning, you have to ask whether the priorities of the delivery plan really match the aspirations of those who took part? I doubt many people in the public meetings, for example, called for “collaborative school-based supply teacher clusters“.
You can tell the public meetings made an imprint because some common areas of improvement or ideas you hear from locals made it into the delivery plan i.e. work placements in nurseries, widening community access to school estates. There is, however, an element of the plan being fitted around the Welsh Government’s national priorities (like the supply teacher cluster) and it just being rebranded and repackaged as a valleys-only initiative.
All in all, this is perhaps a far more realistic and grounded action plan than those of the past, but whether it’ll address some of those issues that can never be fully addressed by a devolved government – nihilism, welfare reform, disability, a sense of ownership or direction over their own future and life path – remains to be seen.