Employers need to challenge traditional working practices to ease congestion issues

In his monthly Western Mail column, Matt Southall, Acorn's Managing Director calls for more imaginative thinking from employers to solve future congestion issues.

With less than a month of 2017 to go, thoughts naturally turn to the year ahead and what 2018 will hold. For my own business, I am optimistic about 2018. During the course of the last twelve months we’ve made a number of internal developments, and have been investing in new branches and new specialist areas; and this investment has resulted in some great new contract wins for us and has created a real buzz around the business.

For the country, I’m a little less clear about what the future holds. The implications of Brexit are still so up in the air and there are numerous projects that are yet to get off the ground. The M4 relief road is a case in point. We’ve been talking about it for over 15 years, and in that time the traffic congestion has only got worse.

However, things do seem to be moving, so to speak, and I’m hopeful that in 2018, the project will finally get underway. Recent research has shown that the M4 in Wales comes to a standstill on average 30 times a day, costing the economy an estimated £135m.

I’m supportive of the relief road primarily because the situation now needs a focused, singular, ‘step change’ to deal with the congestion and improve access to, from and around the gateway to South Wales and importantly to Wales’ capital region.

But, fundamentally, from here on we absolutely must think differently about the movement of people and workers, and most certainly must not expect to think about simply increasing our road networks again and again as the perpetual answer to movement and congestion. For me, that’s it for the M4; finally build the relief road around Newport – we really need to – and then we must start planning how to ensure it doesn’t need widening or extending again in the future. We need to start being much cleverer and more imaginative.

"We absolutely must think differently about the movement of people and workers."

My interest was piqued recently by two individuals who take a very different perspective but raise some salient points about the future of working in Wales.

I quite agree with AM Lee Waters and Ceri Davies, CEO of Indycube CBS, when they say that without a more forward-thinking approach, we will find ourselves in a similar position in 20 years’ time.

In a recent speech to the Senedd, Mr Waters urged policy makers to look at the big picture, highlighting that there are major changes coming down the line and he believes, as I do, that investment in our digital infrastructure is just as important as investment in our physical infrastructure.

He also highlighted the very real need for much improved public transport, and I am confident that the South Wales Metro will be a real game-changer in helping to move people and businesses all around the region.

Meanwhile, Ceri Davies shared a piece looking at the ways technology is advancing and how the world is changing with it, arguing that our ideas should be evolving too.

He suggests that technology brings great opportunities to benefit people, businesses and the environment – goals we can surely all agree on – and therefore more and more office-based staff could (or should) work from home or from community work hubs like Indycube and Welsh ICE, which offer collaborative working environments in the areas local to where people live. (Which again dovetails well with the opportunities and benefits afforded by the metro.)

As well as helping the economy and avoiding the need for ever-more major road developments, this forward-thinking approach would attract investors, skills and people, support entrepreneurs and start-ups, save workers time and money (and the time and money of their businesses and employers), and help protect the environment. Ceri suggests that people and businesses, especially in the Valleys, would see almost immediate benefits; and productivity, the over-riding challenge for today’s economy, would improve markedly with reduced travel-to-work time, and the fatigue, hassle and delays associated with it, factored into a working day.

I firmly believe that Wales could be renowned globally for this – our politicians often shout about how Wales is a ‘small, agile country’ – well how often do we really, truly demonstrate agility to the extent that it is a strength or USP compared to other parts of the UK, or elsewhere in the world?

This way of working would surely reinforce how ‘agile’ we are, and the opportunities for employers that locate and grow their businesses here.

I urge people on all sides of the debate to accept that we do need the M4 relief road, and we need it quickly – we are where we are and the situation is just dire, so if we can accept this development as a final time we approach travel and movement in this way, we can then all move on, and we agree to deal with the potential and planning for future congestion issues in a more imaginative, localised and expansive way.

The metro and the growth of hubs are hugely positive initiatives, and to make the most of their potential, as employers we need to challenge our traditional mindsets and think more positively about our employees working remotely and the impact this can have on our organisation’s productivity, it’s bottom line, and society in general.

Wales is a country that had been shaped by the past and it is a history we are extremely proud of, but now it is time to look forward. Our economy thrived in the industrial revolution, and so with employers and policymakers looking to the future, there should be no reason for us not to thrive again in the digital revolution.

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