Enterprise Zones – That’s How Bad Things Are

Our innovative and enterprising Welsh Government, that we were promised would provide ‘Welsh answers to Welsh problems’, has finally sprung into action . . . by copying England. The news we’ve all been waiting for (or dreading) came last night when Business Minister, Edwina Hart, told Cardiff Business Club that Wales is to have five Enterprise Zones (EZs), with more to be announced later.

Back in April I dealt with the subject of EZs and condemned the essential dishonesty – and desperation – behind the idea. Rather than repeat myself I challenge the Welsh Government to tell us what gurantees it intends providing that those allowed to take advantage of EZs will fall into one of the following categories: 1/ Companies from outside Wales. 2/ New companies starting up. 3/ Existing companies that – it is independently established – can not expand or take on more workers in their current locations.

The one difference between the EZs set up in England and those planned for Wales is that the Welsh EZs are intended to be sector specific. For example, the Cardiff Central EZ is to focus on the financial sector; Anglesey on energy; Ebbw Vale focuses on the automotive industry (!); Deeside on advanced manufacturing; and St. Athan on aerospace. All well and good, in theory, but as I pointed out in my April posting, theory and practice diverge, and nowhere more than in the Swansea example. (Interestingly, both Edwina Hart and a number of commentators have used Swansea as an example of what must not happen this time around. If only!)

I say that because there is a political imperative at work here that says these Welsh EZs must succeed, but in the current economic climate – plus the fact that England’s 21 EZs have a head-start – the only way that Welsh EZs can even give the appearance of success is by relaxing the rules initially applied and repeating the Swansea disaster. You have to ask yourself why the Welsh Government decided to go down this road in the first place. The answer comes with where the announcement was made, Cardiff Business Club.

Those who run Cardiff, and think only of that city, have been pushing for the creation of an EZ in the city for a while to give a kick-start to the new Cardiff Business District. Yet you have to ask yourself why Cardiff, so much wealthier than any other part of Wales, needs an EZ, let alone two. Enterprise Zones are intended to boost areas where the economy is flagging, not give yet another advantage to areas already economically vibrant and outstripping other parts of the country. Then there’s the attitude that underpins this demand, articulated so eloquently by Rodney Berman, leader of Cardiff council, who said:

“I am delighted the Welsh Government has realised Wales needs Enterprise Zones if we are to successfully compete with the English cities and regions and I am, of course, thrilled that Cardiff will now benefit from this status.
“I have been lobbying for this to happen for some time and have written to the First Minister to urge that enterprise zones are introduced as this is the only way we can be placed on a level playing field with cities such as Bristol”.

This about sums up the Cardiff mind-set (outside of the Welsh immigrant community): ‘Sod our responsibilities as the capital of Wales – all that matters is Cardiff competing with other provincial cities’. With the result that devolution is taking us down the same road as England. Wealth is accumulating in the south east corner of the country with political and economic decisions influenced by that area to the detriment of the rest of Wales.

I predict that these Welsh Enterprise Zones outside of Cardiff and Deeside will only ‘succeed’ by doctoring the data. I just hope to God that my home town doesn’t fall for it again unless the planned EZ is within the city centre, the waterfront regeneration area, or the ‘infill’ between Swansea and Neath Port Talbot where the new university campus is planned.

But, knowing our Welsh politicians – and that definitely includes Swansea councillors, of all parties – we’ll probably end up with a cockle-focused Enterprise Zone in Penclawdd . . . which will transmute into yet another out-of-town retail complex.

Who Runs Wales?

This is a story I am familiar with, having met Pol Wong a number of times and having him patiently explain to me the tortuous process he’s been through. Without wishing to pre-empt any inquiry there are a few points to be made and a huge question to be asked.

Pol’s idea is magnificent. With the Shaolin connection it could only increase Llangollen’s internationalist credentials. But Pol also wanted to take disaffected kids off the streets and give them self-respect and a purpose in life. A third strand was the promotion of Welsh culture. For Pol is a proud Welshman and a Welsh speaker.

Everything was going fine with this project; the funding was in place, as was planning consent, and political approval had also been received. If memory serves me right, the project was signed off by both Rhodri Morgan and Ieuan Wyn Jones. Then silence, and problems. Possibly instigated by the previous Labour AM for the area Karen Sinclair, who seemed to have developed a pathological hatred for the project. But she could have done nothing without the help she received in Cardiff. I suspect she merely served to alert those on the look-out for dangerous Welsh initiatives.

More than once I have condemned the behaviour of civil servants in Wales, such as those belonging to the shadowy and sinister Housing Directorate. It was the obstructionism of civil servants like these that seems to have derailed the Llangollen venture. Not by communication but by silence. I say that because, from talking with Pol, I know that one of his biggest frustrations was the total lack of feedback and answers, of not knowing where his project stood. Repeated letters, phone calls and e-mails went unanswered. It was as if the project had disappeared into a black hole.

There is no doubt that this project has been scuppered by civil servants in Cardiff. That’s bad enough, but worse is the sense that our politicians are helpless in the face of these people. So the big question I referred to at the top is this: Who runs Wales? Is it the politicians we elect to the Assembly or is it unelected civil servants accountable to no one but their masters in London?

The evidence accumulates that it’s the latter, and this makes a mockery of devolution.

UPDATE: 19:50 Since posting I have been e-mailed by Pol Wong who says: “WAG’s insistence that we failed to get funding is a lie. A package was presented to Ieuan Wyn Jones in Jan 2010, which he ok’d. The permanent secretary (after a call from Karen Sincclair) insisted that another more detailed paper was done, which it was. She then prevented it going back to IWJ for the decision.

   Of course during this period it was impossible to get funding from other sources because WAG would not talk to us to confirm or otherwise vital info for funders, even at one point instructing security not to allow a site meeting for our potential new funders!
    Basically we say that YES we did have funding but the Permanent Secretary overruled it and then they actively prevented us from getting funding from any other source.
   So in the end after 2 years the election came and hey presto new (Edwina Hart) minister, then the refusal to back it because we no longer fit with policy, even though they have a commitment to tourism. They get around this by saying that they fail to understand how we support tourism!”
In a subsequent e-mail Pol told me: “Also, I’ve got loads of stuff from FOIs and a transcription of a meeting with Karen Sinclair (AM) where she brags to me that, ‘I phoned Gill Morgan (Permanent Secretary) and that’s why your money was stopped’! Plus loads of other stuff that backs up my assertions”.
This whole business stinks and a public inquiry is the only way to get to the bottom of it.