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.

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