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  • Whiterock Wales

Small steps could take us far

It's funny sometimes how a phrase can stick in your mind. The one that keeps coming back to me is that effective economic regeneration is mostly about doing the right amount of effort in the right places.

I heard it said at a seminar last week and I agree entirely. Yet I have to add that it's a truth that is often forgotten in Wales.

Social deprivation continues to be a weight that bears down on too many of our communities. The pity is that a succession of big budget initiatives has done little to improve matters in the long term.

We had a decade of the Welsh Development Agency enticing firms to relocate here. This was was effective in terms of job creation, although it came close to resembling economic brigandry, according to some English regional authorities.

Later on Rhodri Morgan ploughed European cash into building up the skills base. It was a decisive move but it failed to entice inward investors who were more concerned about the parlous state of Welsh transport infrastructure.

Jobs went instead to less skilled EU nations who had put their own share of Objective One funding into better road and rail links.

Now we're looking desperately to catch up and that involves getting on the case of UK and Welsh governments to sort out the confusion as to who pays for rail electrification — and especially the key section between Cardiff and Bridgend.

As far back as I can remember, governments and local councils have been prepared to somersault backwards through flaming hoops in order to attract the big one. The ongoing mission is to search for global corporations that will be bring jobs and prosperity.

Yet why do we always look for greener grass when there are so many opportunities to foster our own big players?

There was quite a lot of excitement the other day about plans by Pinewood Studios to move some of it operations to a warehouse site just outside Newport.

What no-one in the Welsh media mentioned is that Bay Studios located on Fabian Way is where the successful Da Vinci's Demons is filmed. More than 800 people are employed during filming, many of them locals.

He won't thank me for mentioning it but Roy Thomas, the man behind the transition of the old Visteon plant, has done a huge amount to help businesses starting out in Swansea over the years.

There are several successful firms in the area today who owe him a personal debt of thanks for his initial support. We need more like him.

But because people like Roy tend to be a rare breed these days, we also have look to elsewhere. Thankfully the Welsh government is making the right noises as to how smaller enterprises can make a big difference.

Their "Vibrant and Viable Places" programme is a lot more targeted and, dare I say it, even realistic. Despite the jargon and definitions, the focus is on the stuff that matters, such as how coastal communities and seaside towns can work towards all-year-round economic activity.

Although it's tempting to think so, regeneration is not just about big shiny schemes.

The philosophy of "if you build it they will come" may work in the movies but there is a legacy of empty white elephants around the county that can testify otherwise.

Sometimes all that is needed for a potentially huge business to make their first critical step is for planning rules to allow them to expand their existing premises rather than go to the expense of relocating.

We will never know how many times officialdom has ignored the difference that a handful of new jobs can make to a community.

What I'm hoping is that this unambitious outlook will soon become a thing of the past in Wales.

Locally and regionally, the challenge is to recognise that reversing social and economic decline needs a diverse economy that values all shapes and sizes plus a workable combination of public and private investment.

In other words, the right amount of effort in the right places.


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