Every so often, a bit of grit gets into the giant machine of progress. It very seldom slows things down but it’s enough to make someone ask awkward questions about the future.
That’s what happened when academic Mark Lang recently queried whether the billion pounds pencilled in for an M4 relief road is likely to produce anything like the economic benefit to match its estimated cost. His current forecast is that it won’t.
Dr Lang is associate director at the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES). His recent report suggests that big buck infrastructure projects such as the South Wales Metro have little actual practical effect on surrounding towns and communities.
I heard similar viewpoints at a regeneration event a while ago. The overall message then, as now, is that expecting wealth to spread out from the centre following capital investment is a fallacy. The only perceptible and unwelcome effect is that house prices in outlying areas go up but incomes stay static.
This leads to the conclusion that if you're seeking to create a link between public investment and enriching valley towns then the smart move is to switch from putting resources into shortening the commute time to the capital to relocating workplaces to where people live.
This is no fluffy, fashionable green alternative approach either. In fact, it’s pretty much replicating what the former Welsh Development Agency used to be about.
Of course, it must be said that projects like the tidal lagoon and rail electrification are as much about a serious step-change in cleaner technology as investment. Somehow though, every economic impact assessment I’ve seen manages to dodge the regional question as to who benefits socially or financially.
If regeneration is about anything then it must be about improving quality of life. That’s not too difficult a task if you already have a reasonably secure job, good life expectancy plus a decent roof over your head and don't rely on food banks or tax credits.
Sadly, in a world where poverty is generally classed as households which earn 60% or below of the average income, that figures encompasses a lot of families in west Wales and the Valleys – hence the depressing legacy of EU structural funding.
If you can change the prospects of a third-world village by introducing a water stand-pipe, goes the thinking, then it’s not a huge leap to take the idea further in your own backyard.
It’s not as simplistic as it sounds. The problem for everyone currently playing the regeneration game however is that they don’t make the rules. Governments set the agenda, usually based upon the latest shiny, ministerial fad.
So when you’re locked into a cycle of competitive bidding where you can’t deliver using basic settlements without gimmicky supplementary assistance pushing you in a different direction, it needs some clear-thinking politicians - and not just academics - to spell out the flaws.
Sometimes it only needs a bit of grit. If only because given the right circumstances you occasionally end up with a pearl.
All together now?
It’s not often I agree with Welsh conservative leader Andrew RT Davies - in fact this may be a first – but he’s right on the button in disputing that devolution is linked with patriotism.
It was another committed tory, Samuel Johnson, who in 1775 pronounced that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. History has it he was referring to those who invoke nationalist fervour to promote political ends.
Of course, that accusation can be levelled at pretty much everyone in politics but there’s an inherent danger behind the philosophy of “my county, right or wrong”, mostly because it usually involves a loss of individual rights somewhere along the line.
Devolution in Wales has nothing to do with “Welshness” and it’s facile to suggest otherwise. Equally though, I’d argue that voting to either leave or remain within the EU should never be misrepresented as an of patriotism.
I wonder if Mr Davies agrees with that?
West is getting better and better
A series of weddings and weekend breaks have taken us into west Wales in recent weeks. Luckily, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire are blessed with a choice of excellent restaurants and accommodation to divert me from my bucolic struggles with the sat-nav.
My first stay at Bluestone was interesting. It wasn’t at all what I expected and possibly better for that. Overall not my cup of tea I admit but well worth a visit.
The same weekend took in a quick stopover in Tenby, who know what they’re doing by offering visitors clean streets and competitive car parking charges. I’d recommend a visit to the Bay Tree restaurant. The beer battered cod wasn’t on my bucket list but it undoubtedly should have been.
It’s easy to forget that we have such marvellous destinations on our doorsteps. And now that the delays to the A48 at Nantycaws have now been resolved, we’ll most definitely be back.