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  • Lawrence Bailey

Looking at a different kind of enterprise

Economic initiatives in Wales are as much a part of our historical character as the castles that dot the landscape.

Beneath our feet are a strata of discarded regeneration plans dating back to the pre-dawn of devolution - laid down by political parties and institutions over the last couple of decades.

Among these is the Conservative flagship policy which started with the premise that what Wales really needed was a barrage across Cardiff Bay.

No sooner had the laughter died down than the Welsh Office was writing blank cheques - with none of the parsimony displayed by Gwydyr House incumbents nowadays.

Meanwhile it was the Thatcherite solution of Enterprise Zones that was sold to Swansea’s city fathers as a means of recovery from 1980’s decimation .

For those unfamiliar with the philosophy, special regulation-free areas were created to entice new business investment. What they actually achieved was a massive relocation of existing firms and jobs.

That didn’t deter the Welsh Development Agency from refining this type of disruptive brigandry to great success, mostly at the expense of English regional economies.

Ironically, the first outfit to suss out the flaws of an economic policy that stopped real investment spreading westward beyond Bridgend was the European Union. This in turn spawned Objective One and all that – although most new money went on ‘skills initiatives’, at Welsh insistence, rather than infrastructure.

It’s all different now, of course. Senedd-backed efforts to hike prosperity are shared in cross-cutting fashion between ministerial portfolios and then overlaid by a patina of ‘Future Generations’ criteria – the current policy catch-all.

With that kind of backstory, it’s a real wonder that City Deal, the archetypal brand of Treasury-backed community-capitalism was ever allowed to cross over from England.

That’s probably because it was Welsh councils who made the first overtures to [then] Chancellor George Osborne about following the city regions of Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool and Greater Manchester in forming joint ventures that could ‘unlock growth’.

Whatever your view on the concept, City Deals are not your state hand-out in the traditional sense. There is a regimen of governmental reality-checks plus serious scrutiny by independent business panels.

Inevitably some proposals fall by the wayside while others get reviewed with consequent changes in partners and priorities.

Failure is a dirty word in politics. In business however it’s a fact of life – and you either learn from it or you don’t.

My background enables me to appreciate the scale of the challenge involved n bringing together local authorities, universities, health boards and the private sector into a cohesive partnership; and then rolling the whole thing forwards.

The key test is still whether City Deal project outcomes can deliver real growth, create new jobs and improve life opportunities for all our communities. That’s the bottom line and everything else is politics – partisan and otherwise.

It’s easy to stand on the sidelines or look out of a newsroom window and declare Swansea Bay’s City Deal a potential failure in the making.

For me, those who offer that assessment have clearly failed to recognise the fact that we’re finally embarking on a different kind of enterprise.

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