Matt Southall, Acorn's MD talks to the Western Mail.
Less than two months ago I was using this very column to extol the virtues of major infrastructure projects in creating an immediate and lasting lift to the nation’s economy. Among the projects flagged as potential economic game-changers were the long-talked about M4 relief road, a tidal barrage across the River Severn – as well as the electrification of the mainline right through to Swansea and the entire South Wales Valleys Lines network.
Like many business leaders across the region, I warmly welcome the recent electrification announcements from the UK government, which at a stroke signalled a near £2 billion investment into the rail network in Wales.
But this is not just a hugely significant shot in the arm for Welsh business. Make no mistake about it, these two projects will provide work for many thousands of people – and not just during the construction and installation period, but valuable on-going employment for Wales for the future.
The engineering projects themselves will provide work for a whole army of skilled and semi-skilled personnel, from highly-trained engineers to the construction site crews required to prepare the groundworks.
Then there’s the supply chain – those who provide the raw materials, those who deliver the raw materials to the construction sites, those who supply the tools for work on the sites, along with all the heavy plant machinery and the support services every major infrastructure project requires.
There are businesses in Wales already trying to work out how they can claim a share of these hugely lucrative development projects, which could well last several years before they are completed - and clients of our (Acorn's) specialist rail recruitment subsidiary Exxell, which has its headquarters in London, are also expecting to be involved in the installation of the electrification of the London to Swansea mainline, and we are already working with them on their potential recruitment requirements.
For this project there will be a need for designers, project engineers and managers, testing and commissioning engineers just for the design and planning stage, with the possibility somewhere in the region of 1,500-2,000 white collar staff alone required for this. Another 1,000-plus construction staff will also be sought, not forgetting the increased job security and creation within the fabrication sector for the manufacture of the electrification gantries.
There is no doubt that these two projects alone should create employment for many thousands of people over a number of years with a huge transient workforce required, and provide knock-on employment opportunities and an economic boost to every community they come into contact with. And it’s what happens when the work is completed that’s also interesting – especially how the electrification of the South Wales Valleys rail network could change the face of the traditional Valley Lines towns like Caerphilly, Pontypridd, Porth, Aberdare, Maesteg and Barry.
The employment opportunities that could be spawned in these areas may be quite considerable as electrification opens up the Valleys to people living in the proposed new City Regions, making those areas far more attractive for employers to which they might locate their businesses. We should see this providing a major fillip to the rejuvenation of some of those larger Valleys communities by encouraging businesses to move from the more expensive 'city' centres into the outlying towns.
One thing is very clear. Both of these electrification projects will open up South Wales to the international marketplace – and not just nationally here in the UK. Overseas businesses will be more encouraged than ever to cash in on the greater access that will be created to reach centres of skills and work throughout the region.
There is a definite feeling that with these two new infrastructure projects coming on stream, the creation of the new City Regions of South Wales and the opening of the London office of the Welsh Government that at long last the seamless dovetailing of business development initiatives for the area is taking shape.
It seems that finally we may be able to deliver the promise of Wales as a place that’s now ripe to do business with and a place in which to make a home for business – accessing not only centres of work, but skilled workforces, and linking communities together in a dynamic way.
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