Governments can work better together for Welsh economy

In his monthly Western Mail column, Acorn's Matt Southall examines the current partnership between Westminster and the Welsh Government. 

I was interested to watch last week, the feature on BBC Wales' The Wales Report about 'business' becoming the battle ground on which the looming Welsh Assembly elections may or may not be won.

The feature centred on a discussion about how well the Welsh Government and the UK Government work together in the interests of the Welsh economy. Answering this question in the studio were Denise Lovering of Glenside Commercials who is Chair of the Caerphilly Business Council and Chair of the Welsh Freight Council, together with Dan Langford, one of my senior colleagues here at Acorn.  

Of course the timing of such a debate comes off the back of recent, devastating blows for the steel industry here in Wales, the continuing calls for development to start on the M4 relief road and other infrastructure projects in both north and south Wales, and the contrasting media reports on the progress of the tidal lagoon in Swansea.

So with about three months before we hit the polling stations to decide on our future Welsh Government the question was asked firstly, do these two institutions collaborate enough to support the development of the Welsh economy, and secondly should politics stay out of ‘business’.

Taking the first question, it would be easy to simply list a number of reasons to suggest that the relationship between Cardiff and Westminster isn’t working and that there are too many initiatives being held up because of political posturing and complexities, which are preventing a Welsh Labour Government and a UK Conservative Government working better together.

But, whilst some might not agree, perhaps these hold-ups are more an indication of how there remains much room for improvement rather than simply stating the relationship isn’t working at all. This would be my view.

Critical projects in the pipeline 

We all know there are some hugely-significant, if not critical projects in the pipeline for Wales; not just those mentioned above, but also the electrification of the Western mainline, the Valleys lines, the South Wales Metro, potential additional tidal lagoons around the Welsh coastline, agreement on the City Deal for the Cardiff Capital Region and so on – all of these need the combined support or agreement, directly or otherwise from both Governments.

And it feels to many that this is where we experience significant hold-ups. But notwithstanding the need for some urgent decision-making to get the first spades in the ground sooner rather than later, in the last two to three years I would suggest this relationship has improved markedly, bringing some tangible benefit to the Welsh economy.

Firstly, during the last couple of years the engagement of businesses and business leaders by both Governments individually has developed well – the reach and impact of Business Wales and its support to businesses at all stages of growth, the Jobs Growth Wales programme, and the development of the business-led priority sector panels are good examples where the Welsh Government has responded to its economic development agenda. And through the Wales Office, we have benefited from extensive internal lobbying and representation on behalf of Wales in the corridors of the UK Government, as well as regular direct dialogue with businesses throughout the country; with success.

Additionally we can look to a number of recent achievements borne from their genuine collaboration – for example the NATO conference and the subsequent UK Investment Conference could only have been such a success with both Governments working well together. Equally, bringing the European Champions League Final in 2017 to Wales; this absolutely could not have been achieved without their combined, collaborative efforts.

For the recent Task Force set up by the Welsh Government to look into the Welsh steel industry, Lord Nick Bourne from the Wales Office has been included to ensure, one would presume, that the energies and might of both Governments can be aligned to support this industry at such a difficult time. Similarly, Edwina Hart was invited to attend an equivalent Task Force set up by the UK Government in Redcar, again presumably, so any learning or insight through their deliberations could be taken back to Wales.

UKTI presence in Wales 

And of course, we now see a much more active UKTI presence in Wales than we have seen before – helping to support trade and investment opportunities for Wales and the Welsh economy; a resource that had much less engagement in Wales until only a couple of years ago.

So, whilst having opposition parties leading each Government and appreciating the natural complexities that such a relationship would therefore attract, we can see definite development in working better together for the benefit of the Welsh economy.

I’m hopeful that the completion of the City Deal and progression of the Tidal lagoon in Swansea will prove to be further exemplars of this – but, as with all the developments in the pipeline, we really do need some urgency, conviction and commitment – from both Governments – and we need it now.

Finally, taking the second question they were asked, my answer would be very simple – we can’t take politics out of business, but it might help if we took the politics out of business.

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