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Bring on the glasnost

There used to be a story told in the latter days of the old Soviet Union about how the state dealt with poor performance. If, for example in Stalin’s day, a train carrying the First Secretary and politburo was late, the driver would’ve been shot and the timetable confiscated. Under Khrushchev, the driver could expect a spell in Siberia and the timetable ‘revised’.

But when Gorbachev came along, things changed so that everyone could bravely admit the shortcoming and then auction off the timetable for hard currency. I never said it was a particularly funny story. Similarly, I’m guessing that chuckles were pretty thin on the ground among officials about the glasnost (openness) displayed by deputy minister Lee Waters over Welsh government economic policy.

It’s not often that you come across a politician willing to admit that nobody knows what they’re doing, but having once sat across from him in a construction site office I can well imagine him making such an honest observation.

After twenty years of devolution, whatever economic measure you care to apply shows Wales as stagnant at best. Mr Waters cites the reason as limitations regarding approach – and I’d have to agree.

It’s worth remembering that the newly created Assembly inherited a dysfunctional mind-set that was basically about enticing firms to relocate here whilst concentrating any cash spend in the south-east corner of Wales.

Despite a succession of schemes to revitalise the valleys and build up the skills base, the basic philosophy has never quite seemed to change.

There is now however a detectable shift. The traditional big-fish solution towards inward investment looks like being gradually abandoned in favour of a ‘grounded’ smaller-scale outlook.

We’re being asked to embrace what is called the ‘Preston model’, based on the Lancashire city who have significantly boosted business opportunities through local public procurement.

The concept is what’s called ‘community wealth building’ which ensures that the benefits of local growth are invested in local areas. Revenues are used to support investment via partnerships that work together towards an agenda of shared benefit.

It’s a familiar enough sounding dynamic. Indeed, you could argue that Neath Port Talbot has been pursuing similar aims in its community regeneration programme for some time.

Partnership working is also second-nature in our part of Wales. So what’s different?

Well, if you listen to the key players involved, they will tell you that it was done with the blessing – but not the involvement – of central government. There are no civil servants, answerable to ministers, hovering over the process or holding back funding at key stages.

So perhaps the first and most important move by the Welsh government should be a step backwards. Surely after two decades, there should be enough maturity to practice the enabler message that is regularly preached to others and focus on the high-level stuff instead of micro-managing.

I’m hoping we’ll hear more in this vein next month when Swansea Council leader Rob Stewart gives a project update on tourism, regeneration and energy sectors - and how local firms and communities can share the benefits.

Look out for details in coming weeks.

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