Whatever happened to planning?

The vision that led to the creation of Cardiff’s outstanding city centre more than 100 years ago has sadly gone missing in recent decades and an incoherent jumble has been created, Rhys David argues.

One of the joys of watching Michael Portillo’s Great Railway Journeys series on television – especially those focusing on the Continent and the US – is the sight of the magnificent railway stations he visits. National or provincial capital, big town or small, the arrival of the railway has usually been celebrated with an impressive building that could make a statement about the destination the visitor had arrived at.

In most cases the station main entrance leads out into a central square where civic pride could be further demonstrated with an open public space or small park, perhaps surrounded by dignified municipal or commercial properties. In Cardiff, too, the station was built to project pride in the growth of the new coal metropolis. Isambard Brunel even went to the trouble of moving the River Taff to get the right alignment for his railway through south Wales. The Great Western Railway put up a building in 1934 which has received perhaps the ultimate accolade – inclusion and three-star status in Simon Jenkins’ most recent buildings blockbuster, Britain’s One Hundred Best Railway Stations.

The work by architect Percy Culverhouse is described by Jenkins as clean and confident, and a rare example of proto-art deco. It captures, he claims, the moment when neo-Georgian was flirting with new decorative forms, its finest feature being the main concourse’s superb display of modulated art deco, its space lit by a superb sequence of hanging lights.

It dominated its location when constructed, the only other tall buildings in sight being Charles Bernard’s 1868 Royal Hotel in St. Mary Street and Henry Tanner’s General Post Office in Westgate Street. The new Cardiff General (now Cardiff Central) faced on to a square, originally the grid pattern working class streets of Temperance Town. This was bounded by Wood Street, the river and the rear of lower St. Mary Street. Following demolition of the properties, it was first an open space, and then the city’s bus station.

No longer. The area is named Central Square, but the description does not hold.  Into it have been crammed a series of concrete and glass monoliths that completely bully the station and fail to make the slightest nod to the history of the area and its original form. Government and commercial offices, lawyers, university departments, as well as the BBC’s Wales headquarters are being crammed into this area together with a token bus station for long-distance coaches.

Further development is planned on the other side of the station on the extensive Brains brewery and adjoining sites. The result: thousands of people, many of whom will want to be mobile during the day will arrive by car every weekday into an already heavily congested area, effectively accessible only along the bus-clogged Westgate Street and the Wood Street bridge over the Taff. It is little wonder the Royal Hotel has protested that existing high levels of atmospheric pollution can only increase.

The massing of the BBC building along Wood Street, whatever its modish green credentials, overwhelms its surroundings and joins several other uninspiring blocks completed or due for construction that look like they have been dropped in randomly from above. A corridor running through to the Principality Stadium tells you where priorities for the redevelopment lie – ensuring rapid access and egress to the stadium on rugby and pop concert days. Don’t be surprised if this processional way – and much of the rest of the Central Square environment becomes an unpleasant wind tunnel on winter days. The station frontage, too, is set to lose its clean, unobscured lines, buried under a steel and glass canopy for new retail – the obsession of Britain’s station owners. If money is to be spent on the station, how much more sensible and convenient it would be for passengers just to cover the exposed, elevated platforms against wind, rain and seagulls!

Cardiff’s planners have fallen in love with the idea that a landscape dotted with mini-skyscrapers equals prosperity so that it would seem anyone with a plan for a multi-storey building is shown the red carpet.  A towering stump has now emerged to overpower the former Pembroke Terrace Presbyterian Church of Wales in Churchill Way, catering for the latest developers’ fad – student accommodation. Another student block developer was sufficiently emboldened to put forward plans for a corner of Park Place previously occupied by solicitors, Blake Morgan, which would ruin the setting in which Cardiff’s most important ensemble of buildings – the City Hall, Museum, and Law Courts sits.

As marketing expert Roger Pride has recently pointed out, by contrast the few fine old buildings Cardiff possesses lie neglected and he rightly calls for more imaginative uses for architectural gems, particularly around St. Mary Street and not yet more bars and restaurants. He lamented the loss of Cory Hall opposite Queen Street Station and the neo-classical fire station in Westgate Street (now the site of a hideous car park). He could have mentioned others that have gone, including the old Taff Vale Railway’s Queen Street Station itself, Ebenezer Welsh Congregational chapel, (swallowed by Marks & Spencer) and the vast Wood Street Congregational Church (where Southgate House stands).

Other historic buildings have languished for decades in a state of decrepitude, bridesmaids at the redevelopment wedding but never the bride: the GPO building in James Street and the adjoining Cory’s Building, or the buddleia-bestrewn Bute Street (Cardiff Bay) Station, believed to have been the work of Brunel. The GPO in Westgate Street, too, lies empty, and House of Fraser’s James Howell store awaits an uncertain fate. In case it does not continue in something like its present use, have the city’s planners even thought about an action plan to try to find an appropriate use for this iconic building or will developers determine what happens to it?

The student block bubble could, too, be about to burst, as declining student numbers suggest. Some developers have been trying to escape the conditions under which planning permission was granted, seeking temporary dispensations to let the apartments to non-students until demand catches up. This brings with it the danger that Cardiff – and many other university cities – will be left with unsuitable buildings that because they were meant for students have been built to much lower standards than is required for normal domestic occupation. If too many are built, or student numbers fall, they will need to be adapted for other uses or will remain empty.

It must be said, of course, that Cardiff is a succes d’estime.  The chefs Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, writing in the Financial Times this summer, seem to have been blown away by their first visit, loving the Castle Arcade, the animal wall at Cardiff Castle, and the buzzing atmosphere. Indeed, Cardiff has established itself as a visitor destination, able, like historic Bath, Bruges and Bologna to support Hop-On Hop-Off buses around its attractions. Visitors, drawn to a weekend break or to attend a sports fixture, opera or a pop concert, seem impressed. As a city it punches above its weight.

One cannot help thinking, however, that not a huge amount of thought has gone into how the city’s constituent parts should be organised, what concentrations of activity should be allowed where, and what is appropriate in which place, leaving it with what the visitor stepping out of that art deco concourse at Cardiff Central might now regard as a bit of a (congested) mess. Nearly 20 years ago the distinguished architectural critic, Deyan Sudjic described the Cardiff Bay redevelopment as a sad example of a city that, given a choice between the second rate and the excellent, had no hesitation in grabbing the former with both hands. Plus ça change.

 

Rhys David is an author and economic commentator. This article also appeared on the website http://www.WalesBusiness.org

August 22nd, 2018

 

Chronic yes, but hopefully not incurable

 

Can Prime Minister Teresa May’s new industrial strategy break Britain’s cycle of low productivity and acute balance of payments deficits? Rhys David looks at the issues.

 At first sight it all seems rather paradoxical.  Britain, in many ways, seems a much more efficient country than our Continental neighbours and, on occasions the US. We have led the way in many modern banking developments, including credit and debit card usage, and more recently in contactless payment – to the extent that some banks have now decided to print bank statements on both sides of the paper for the declining number of individuals requiring hard copies, such are the number of non-cash transactions these days. They are also threatening to cut the number of cash point machines, so many people are buying even a cup of coffee with a card and need less change.

 

Our transport ticketing systems, too, are often surprisingly far ahead of those in many other countries. Home ordering (and printing in some cases) of tickets is now routine for bus, rail and air journeys. Even suburban rural stations with relatively small numbers of passengers boast machines that will enable you to buy a ticket for distant destinations, and across London the queues at underground stations are now for the ticket machines not the clerks’ windows. These changes, it can be argued, are merely transferring the cost of purchasing services from the operator, through reduced labour costs, to the user purchasing a service at home. They are still improvements to the efficiency of the enterprise’s operations and hence productivity.

 

There are other examples. We were able to go into Prêt à Manger or one of its competitors and buy packaged sandwiches, paninis, wraps and salads in multiple varieties when in New York the consumer still had to wait while the fillings were added. And who after coming from seven-day, sometimes 24-hour, shopping in Britain has not been frustrated to find that on certain days and times on the Continent retail has shut up shop? Why has the same apparent efficiency not happened as widely as we might hope, including where it perhaps matters most – in the things we make?

 

Many of the developments described above merely reflect that Britain is a very tech-savvy place, as the transformed area around Old Street in London demonstrates. Once among the grimmest of London’s thoroughfares, its crossroads with Moorgate is towered over these days with crazily-shaped and coloured blocks housing the world’s internet giants. Amazon, Intel, Google and Cisco are among those that have flocked to Silicon Roundabout and surrounding East London to be part of a community of more than 50,000 people in 3,000 companies. They have been drawn from countries across the world by the opportunity to work in this creative environment. Indeed, the proportion of the UK economy now accounted for by technology – 12.6 per cent – is more than twice that of the rest of the G7.

 

So, to return to the question. Why do we languish sixth out of seven among the G7 world’s richest countries in growing our output per person?  And, it might be asked, if Britain is growing faster than most of its neighbours (though not the US) does it matter?  The answer to the second point is key.  Britain’s growth is heavily dependent on consumer demand fuelled by debt, leading to a serious balance of payments deficit which perhaps vainly it is hoped the recent devaluation of sterling will help to rectify as our exports become less expensive to overseas buyers and imports are deterred by price. Our deficit itself has to be financed by overseas borrowings which can be secured at reasonable rates of interest only as long as lenders continue to have confidence in our ultimate ability to repay. Britain’s economy needs to shift from this paradigm sooner rather than later and this can only be achieved if the economy becomes more genuinely productive. More productive companies with faster-growing output can afford to pay higher wages, which in turn means higher tax revenues for Government and an improved capacity to pay for the social and other services now demanded.

 

So, what has been tried? Post-war efforts to raise UK productivity began seriously with Harold Wilson’s creation of industrial champions in electrical equipment (merger of English Electric/AEI/GEC), in motors (the 1968 BMC/Leyland merger), steel (the creation of the nationalised British Steel Corporation   in 1967 with plans to expand production to 35m tonnes a year), and in aluminium (new smelters for RTZ/BICC/Kaiser, British Aluminium and Alcan).

 

Joining the European Community in 1974 was part of this same process but Britain, as a whole, continue to lag behind continental rivals in overall productivity even as the City of London has roared ahead as Europe’s financial capital.  Even on the way out of the financial crash of 2008 the economy’s recovery has been sluggish to the extent that it has only recently grown past the point it had reached eight years earlier. Leaving the EU and concentrating on global markets is seen as another magic bullet but is it any more likely to  hit its  target than previous policy projectiles?

 

Productivity is to a greater or lesser extent a problem across most Western economies and, according to some economists, reflects a slowing pace of change over recent decade, in spite of all the apparent advances we see around us. On this analysis, the western world went through a prolonged period of fast productivity growth from 1870-1970 brought about by changes from the late Victorian period which were much more fundamental than the IT revolution of the past 30 years. This was the period when the rail network was laid down, when plumbing and piped water reached homes, shops and factories, when electricity took over from less efficient means of power generation, when towns and cities brought industry and people together often to specialise in a particular form of commerce, the telephone replaced the telegraph, and disease control reduced mortality. It was also the period when agriculture’s dominance of the economy – from 70 per cent in Victorian times to a figure of only around 1 per cent in Britain today occurred, releasing large quantities of labour to fill burgeoning factories. If this is so it explains the Solow computer paradox, the remark by economist Robert Solow   in 1987 that: “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics”.

 

There are, of course, other explanation . Economists may be mis-measuring productivity – we are doing much better in Britain than we think and are understating productivity growth. The problem appears to have persisted for so long, however, this seems unlikely. The post-crash policy of the Government could be perpetuating the problems.  As Vince Cable, the former Liberal Democrat business secretary in the 2010 coalition admits, Government priority in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis was to ensure unemployment did not surge. Countries that have enjoyed the highest productivity growth in subsequent years are those where the greatest number of workers lost their jobs and now have very high unemployment, often among the youngest. Policies that have encouraged companies to hold on to and recruit low-cost labour (in many cases from outside the UK) have inevitably delayed or made unnecessary the introduction of new labour-saving technologies in the UK.

 

By keeping interest rates at very low levels for the longest period in history the necessary elimination from the economy of “zombie” companies that would not otherwise survive, has also been thwarted. As a result, their more successful rivals have not been able to grow as they might and secure the productivity gains that come when weaker competitors are removed. Or it could be the finance system itself is not working as well as it should, particularly when it comes to channelling resources to small and medium-sized businesses. Hence, the measures the Government has set in train to create new challenger banks and new financial institutions.

 

It is hard not to believe, however, that important as some of these factors have been, something more deep-rooted in the way in which British business operates is at work. In the bigger companies, too much of the surplus generated from activities is going into dividends (and executive salaries, which have now reached vast multiples of average earnings within the same companies). Investment by manufacturing in new equipment and processes has long been neglected, leaving far too many people doing low productivity work where they need more equipment at their elbows if they are to compete with rivals in other countries.

 

One consequence has been to accelerate the decline in the share of manufacturing in total gross domestic product – now down to only about 10 per cent compared with a figure of 33 per cent in 1970. This has left an economy heavily skewed towards services where because of the nature of the work it can be very difficult to secure meaningful productivity gains. If a coffee chain reduces staff by 10 per cent it will save on its wage bill but it is unlikely to be able to find machines that will serve drinks and food as efficiently or clear tables, so customers will be lost. Nor can health care, personal care, education or tourism easily yield productivity gains and these are some of the staples in the British regions where productivity is the biggest problem.

 

The quality of management in much of business is not as good as in some of our competitor countries, a problem which the business education explosion that got under way in earnest in the 1970s has failed successfully to address.  Many of the institutions and courses that have been created since then dedicated to this purpose have now become dependent for survival on the provision of training for the future managers of our competitors in Asia and elsewhere.

 

The incentive schemes available within companies, particularly the largest, may also be perverse in rewarding those nearest the top rather than those more at a more mundane level on whom the implementation of changes in work practices will depend and who may think of useful innovations in the first place.  It may be, too, that the brightest and best-educated Britons are not finding their way into manufacturing or even some sections of the service economy. This may be the legacy of the long period of poor industrial relations that beset British manufacturing from the 1950s through to the 1980s. In this period, it was still common for Britain’s big companies to trawl universities for the best graduates but the brightest since then have often chosen to go instead into service professions such as law, accountancy and management consultancy where the work may be hard but the headaches of dealing with what had become perceived to be difficult unions and labour relations do not exist.

 

Like the previous efforts to raise productivity, Brexit will be seen as the latest opportunity to rebuild a new balance between the different parts of the economy and the different regions. It will not achieve this on its own, however.  And, neither will a greater emphasis on infrastructure, including the digital economy, though this will be important too. The gap between the tech-savvy in Britain and the rest will need to be closed so that more individuals who can operate effectively within the modern labour market can be come forward.  There will need to be investment, too, in improving the skills of managers so that they are better able to carry forward projects that will enable their companies to grow organically and through acquiring other businesses. Large chunks of British industry have already passed into the ownership of multinational corporations outside Britain by business boards with limited interest in any other priority (salary and bonuses apart) than maximising returns to shareholders. Incentives need to be put in place to ensure Britain secures representation in many of those sectors that advanced nations consider to be essential but which in Britain are now controlled from abroad.

 

It will not be easy. Britain will continue to need foreign direct investment even as it tries to rebuild some of its own domestically-owned manufacturing strength. Overseas companies bring with them new products, processes and ideas and play an important part in raising the standards of home-grown competitors, as Japanese, German, and US investors have done over the past 50 years. Nor will it happen quickly.   Unless plans of this sort are embarked upon we are likely to be looking again before long for yet another solution to our industrial balance, productivity and balance of payments – or, chasing   another hoped-for remedy. 

 

 

Rhys David is a writer and journalist  and an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Welsh Affairs in Cardiff

 

January 20th 2017

 

 

 

 

A Walk on the Wild Side – in Wales

Glyndwr’s Way
Rhys David finds solitude and interesting signs of a new vitality on a trek through the middle of Wales
“Of all the beautiful sights in the world, I am not sure if there is anything more lovely than the Welsh hills. It is as if the character of the nation – its under-rated strength and vitality – is contained and channelled in those meadows and rolling slopes.” (The Times June 6th 2016). These comments by Matthew Syed, sports writer and diarist, earlier this month (June) had a particular resonance for those like myself walking those very hills when the article appeared in the best weather window in months.
There is something magical and even reassuring about being a short distance from a sizeable settlement, such as Shrewsbury and the neighbouring West Midlands, and yet in countryside so remote the number of people to be seen during the day can be counted in single figures, with possibly even fewer cars. Instead, one’s constant companions almost everywhere on the horizon and sometimes much closer in this part of the world are sheep in their thousands.
This is the evocatively-named Glyndwr’s Way, a 135-mile long wishbone shaped trail from Knighton to Machynlleth, with a return leg back to Welshpool, the 80 mile first section of which my party of two men and three women covered. Opened in 2000 Glyndwr’s Way purports to follow the route taken by the legendary Welsh hero Owain Glyndwr. Supported at one stage by French forces who marched to within eight miles of Worcester, Glyndwr inflicted several crushing defeats on his English opponents in the early 15th century – notably at the Battle of Pilleth near Knighton in 1402 – before mysteriously disappearing without trace in 1413 but not from Welsh people’s memory.
Today’s route is just a convenient fiction for although Wales’s Braveheart controlled the area for long periods there is more to connect him with the various towns – notably Machynlleth, which he made his capital and seat of his Parliament in 1404 – than with the trail that bears his name. The linking of various UK national trails to historical figures has been a shrewd marketing initiative, however, and one that can probably claim some credit for the growing popularity of long distance walks. Our group walked another such route – St. Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose in the Scottish Borders to Holy Island off Northumberland last year and there are plenty more to choose from, including Wales’s other eponymous trail, Offa’s Dyke. After all, who wants to walk just from A -B, struggling to follow footpaths through remote fields, even for one’s health’s sake, when you can retrace the (supposed) steps of a hero along a scrupulously waymarked route, pointing you in the right direction at every unclear fork or open vista.
But it is not just walkers who have cause to rejoice at the spread of new national trails. Walkers have brought trade and led to facilities being put in place along the routes in towns, villages and other smaller settlements where there was previously not a lot on offer to the outsider (or even the insiders sometimes). Abbey Cwm Hir, one of our stops, is about as remote as it gets yet now boasts a splendid B&B, and walkers are a new potential market for the owners of a quirky country house, Abbey Cwm Hir Hall, built for London lawyer, Thomas Wilson on the site of a Tudor house in in 1833 and purchased four years later by Francis Phillips, a Lancashire landowner and businessman.
Renowned as a roadbuilder (on which subject he published) Phillips is assured of a minor place in history for catching Spencer Percival, the only British Prime Minister ever to be assassinated, as he fell to his knees dying from shotgun wounds in the House of Commons in 1812. The hall’s latest owners have opened it to the public for viewing the series of quirkily eclectic collections they have put together. The nearby ruins of Wales’s biggest abbey, are getting more visitors, too, and educating new generations in Welsh history. Wales’s last native Prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, is reputedly buried here – minus his head which stayed in London where it had been on grisly display following his defeat at Cilmeri in Breconshire in 1282. There are signs of new business in other points along the route. Restaurants have sprung up to serve a growing market in Knighton; a pub has re-opened in another tiny place, Llangunllo; the community shop and café at Llanbadarn Fynydd is getting a few more customers; and there is more business, too, for the teashops, restaurants and mini-markets in Llanidloes and Machynlleth.
Knighton, in particular – once one of the biggest sheep markets in Britain – has gained a new lease of life. It benefits from being not just the starting point for the Glyndwr Way, accessible from the Swansea or Shrewsbury directions on the very scenic Heart of Wales railway line, but from its position near the centre of the much older Offa’s Dyke path. It hosts the visitor centre for this trail. Traditionally very much a border town of divided loyalties, its main street now vies to be the most patriotic in Wales, bedecked with the flag of Glyndwr (four lions passant guardant, red and gold quartered and counter-changed). Having besieged the town’s castle in 1402 and then destroyed it and much of the town, Glyndwr would no doubt now have been giving a wry smile of satisfaction.
These and other developments form part of a more general welcoming feel throughout the area, or so it seemed from our admittedly brief observations. At Velindre, our first stop, the owner of the holiday accommodation we stayed in drove us several miles to the nearest pub serving food and picked us up later. Our host at the Lion Hotel in Llanbister, (who proudly claimed his family had farmed the area for 1,000 years and had the records to prove it!) picked us up from several miles away on the route at the end of one day and took us back the next morning. (His was the nearest accommodation.) At remote, remote Cwm Biga Farm, near the Clywedog reservoir and now self-catering accommodation, the owner had taken over an historic Welsh mixed farm, owned successively by the Welsh prince Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn, the monks of nearby Abbey Cwm Hir, and (after the dissolution) Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Chancellor of Oxford University, he passed it on his death in 1588 to University College, which held it until 1920. After a short period in private ownership it was requisitioned by the Forestry Commission in 1939 on the outbreak of World War Two and its 1,300 acres largely planted with conifers. Having semi-retired the new owner like many in the area now has a portfolio career, providing financial, environmental and IT advice to local businesses and groups as well as cooking for guests if required
There are other signs of a new entrepreneurialism. Public road transport was never plentiful in this area and has now largely disappeared but a small network of taxi companies will ferry people about – and just as importantly take walkers’ luggage from one night’s stay to the next. This was a service we used. (We did meet more hardy walkers, such as Elvira, a Swiss living in the south east who was walking the full 135 miles stretch in nine days with what looked like a 30-40lbs backpack.) The same minibus taxis take children to school helping people to stay in the area, as does another relatively new service, the Post Office Travelling Shop. We came across the familiar red livery in Llangunllo, a van equipped inside to sell stationery, greetings cards and other similar items, as well as offering bank cash withdrawals and, of course, selling stamps and taking parcels. The van travels around to different small communities, parking for an hour or so in each on set days each week, providing services which in some cases, such as simple banking, will have never been seen in the village or settlement before.
Other services are not so available. Mobile phone coverage is patchy, though the extent differs from provider to provider, depending on the area. I did receive one call on the roof of Wales between Llanidloes and Machynlleth where there was not a settlement in sight. “Hi, I’m ‘Alex’”, an Indian voice announced, “and I’m calling you from Windows Technical Department about your computer”. The scammer, to paraphrase Stanley Baldwin’s famous comment in 1932 will always get through, I suppose.
It barely does justice to mid Wales to say the scenery is breath-taking and the weather on our walk was ideal – 20-25 degrees with a slight breeze. After you have ascended from the valley towns at the start of each day most of the walk is at between 1,000 – 1,500 feet over rich green hills just asking to be climbed over, or around at a lower contour level, if you are lucky. The odd farm or other building has to be passed through and there are short stretches of stone track or even road but overwhelmingly the terrain is grass or narrow trackway.
The sights, too, were magnificent and accompanied by a constant chorus of birds, with cuckoos particularly prominent throughout the area. Kites have, of course, remained native to this region even when they had been driven out elsewhere and are relatively common alongside buzzards, and plenty of other smaller birds – curlew, dipper, skylark, meadow pipit, wheatear and redstart to name a few.
There are occasional small rocky gashes in the hills where stone has been taken, probably to build the nearby farmhouse, but the main sign of former industrial activity is at the huge Clywedog dam, near the walls of which is an old lead processing works, one of several dating back to the 19th century in this area. In the tributaries that run into this giant reservoir with its 235-ft high concrete buttress, river trout dart about, their presence one of the reasons for the re-establishment of the osprey in the area. A pair can be viewed from a hide alongside the 11 billion-gallon reservoir where Natural Resources Wales have set up a special telescope to enable visitors to see the female on the nest and her partner nearby.
How tough is the walk? The ground everywhere apart from a few very small, somewhat boggy patches, is good and firm, and clear of obstruction. There are some steep climbs but most of the inclines are relatively gentle, if rather frequent. Weather is, however, all-important. Over much of the area there is relatively little cover once up in the hills. The walk can, of course, be taken in stages – one long walk for the fittest, and section by section, if this is more appropriate.
The growth of interest in this type of get-away-from-it-all holidays has led to the emergence of a number of companies that will make all the necessary bookings. We used The Walking Company, based in Monmouth, which took our proposed itinerary and booked the various hotels and B&Bs, and the taxi luggage transport, as well as providing a comprehensive guidance kit consisting of the excellent Harvey map and Cicerone booklet, and other valuable advice and information.
There is perhaps one other invaluable companion on such a trip, George Borrow, the nineteenth century East Anglian author of Lavengro and The Romany Rye was devoted to Wales and in 1854 tramped over most of Wales with his wife and daughter, wondering at the scenery, talking to local people, and learning about the country’s myths and history, all faithfully recorded in his masterly tome, Wild Wales.
http://www.thewalkingholidaycompany.co.uk/
http://www.harveysmaps.co.uk http://www.cicerone.co.uk

Rhys David is the author of Tell Mum Not to Worry. A Welsh Soldier’s World War One in the Near East. ISBN 978-0-9930982-0-8

In Northern Ireland, history repeats itself

As another crisis threatens to destroy hard-won progress, Rhys David looks back to the resignation of Chief Minister Brian Faulkner in May 1974

Here we go again, or so it would seem. Not for the first time a painfully-constructed power-sharing government in Belfast teeters, bringing back memories of the occasion the province had to be returned to direct rule more than 40 years ago.

In May 1974, it had been a difficult few months and an even more difficult few weeks for the recently established Government led by Ulster Unionist chief minister, Brian Faulkner, and containing some of the best-known Republican-sympathising politicians of the time, including John Hume, Paddy Devlin and Gerry Fitt as well as representatives from the cross-community Alliance Party. It had come into being despite considerable opposition from the more extreme wings of Loyalism and Republicanism. Yet, it was slowly establishing its authority and demonstrating the two sides could work together for the good of the troubled province, at that stage nearly 10 years into what were euphemistically called the Troubles and the more than 3,000 deaths they would ultimately bring.

The UK election called by Edward Heath in May 1974 on the question “Who Runs the Country”, – the Government or striking coal miners – drove the Conservative party from power, ushering in five years of Labour administration under Harold Wilson and later James Callaghan, and paving the way for a further showdown with the miners in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. In Northern Ireland, however, it brought by way of Westminster seats a sweeping endorsement of Loyalist opposition to the power-sharing executive established after long negotiations at Sunningdale a few months earlier.

The Ulster Workers’ Strike that followed brought Northern Ireland to a standstill. Factories and shops were intimidated into closure, barricades closed roads, and the authorities were at a loss how to respond without seeming to give in to what was in effect an attempted putsch. Electricity supplies were reduced to a trickle, making it quite an effort without a lift to go up and down to the rooms – numbers 510 and 512 – which had been my home for more than a year as the Financial Times Northern Ireland correspondent. The Europa’s manager, the legendary Harper Brown, did his best to look after guests in these circumstances, driving south to the Republic to pick up large tins of ham to put on the table in the absence of hot food. Press, radio and television gathered from all over the world to see what would be the outcome of this stand-off.

Faulkner’s power-sharing executive pleaded with the UK authorities for decisive police or Army action to break the strike and restore public order but this never came. Instead, a newly-appointed Northern Ireland Secretary, Merlyn Rees, vacillated in the face of this early challenge so soon into his assumption of the role.

The crucial day turned out to be Tuesday May 29th 1974. With civil servants advising that hospitals would have to shut down and that raw sewage could flood low-lying parts of Belfast, the executive split on the issue of whether it should negotiate with the unelected, self-appointed Ulster Workers Council. The Ulster Unionist members, led by Faulkner, decided they had no option other than to resign and ask Merlyn Rees to take back control.

Summoned to a press conference together with the rest of the press corps I arrived at Stormont after driving past shuttered shops, along roads strewn with makeshift roadblocks, and littered with other debris of civil unrest. Hooded paramilitaries patrolled the roads. After clearing security at the entrance to the long drive and parking outside the monumental Parliament building I decided I would go inside and see what was happening.

As I walked along one of the corridors I came across Brian Faulkner and his entourage proceeding towards me. After trying a few questions, I turned and followed him out to where the rest of the reporters and film crews following the crisis were gathered. Brian Faulkner, a decent man who managed through his efforts to become even less liked on his own side than among his enemies, duly announced his resignation to us and the world and Northern Ireland returned to direct rule until the next set of negotiations led to the Good Friday agreement 20 years later.

Without the UK election, the power-sharing executive would, I believe, have gradually won the support of the people of the province, saving the expenditure of much blood and treasure over the next couple of decades. The misinformation that the Loyalists spread without effective rebuttal about the Council of Ireland, one of the planks of the previous autumn’s Sunningdale Agreement, had been allowed to take root, depriving the executive of the opportunity to win community support.

The situation in 2017 is, of course, very different. Community relations, while still strained are better and previous levels of violence are no longer being recorded, though occasional incidents involving extremists on one side of the other still occur. Nor is the crisis this time a constitutional one, as in 1974 when the prospect of any involvement by the Irish state in Northern Ireland’s affairs was anathema to fierce Loyalists led by Ian Paisley. Yet, the relatively centrist parties led by Faulkner and Hume have lost influence in the interim with the Republican Sinn Fein, and the Loyalist Democratic Unionist Party now the dominant forces in the Northern Assembly and the Government. The once all-powerful Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party have been largely reduced to a watching role.

The next few weeks will be crucial. Sinn Fein has said it will trigger an election now its leader Martin McGuiness is no longer in place as deputy first minister, an outcome that could harden positions on both sides and make it difficult post-ballot to create a new administration that can agree a programme. There could yet be more talks between the two parties to avoid an election. Or it might be necessary to revert to direct rule from London

The concern must be that at a time when ministers in Northern Ireland – and London – need to be concentrating on the Brexit negotiations, they will be seriously distracted by instability in the province. The consequences will be even more serious if politicians and public return to their silos and focus more on blaming each other and point-scoring than on trying to ensure a peaceful transition to further power-sharing. The further possible consequences are obvious.

Karl Marx observed that history is repeated first as tragedy and then as farce. That years of painfully-orchestrated co-operation since the Good Friday agreement should founder on the costly mishandling of an unsound renewable heating scheme suggest history this time, however, is being repeated first as farce. It is in everyone’s interest Marx’s other formulation does not now follow.

Rhys David is a writer and journalist. He was Northern Ireland Correspondent of the Financial Times 1973-1974 rhys.david@btinternet.com

 

 

Vague aspirations will not work

 

admiral

 

Rhys David finds the work of the sector panels set up by the Welsh Government to advise on new economic directions disappointing.

We would not say it ourselves and we would not have liked our near neighbours to say it but when the New York Times recently described Wales as the Greece of the United Kingdom most of us will have recognized a reality.

Like the Greeks the amount we raise in taxes does not cover the cost incurred in running the state, and for their unsustainable borrowing read our internal UK transfers. Moreover, if the New York Times is to be believed, we are even poorer than the Greeks with a lower gross domestic product per head.

Yet, while the Greeks are being obliged to make drastic cuts in public expenditure to eliminate their fiscal deficit, hitting incomes and benefits as well as public services, Wales has the much less demanding task – even after the UK Government’s own cuts have been factored in – of trying to grow its way out of the economic doldrums through more effective economic, education and employment policies. The safety net provided by UK Government social security and other transfers thankfully remains largely in place.

 

To this end and after consultation with a host of organisations and individuals, including the IWA, the Welsh Government has chosen to place much of the onus for achieving a stronger economy on a new industry sector approach and on a move away from the previous grants regime to one that relies much more on loans. The new policy also envisages stronger measures to create a more favourable environment for business, including improvements to transport and other infrastructure. Six sectors were originally chosen Advanced Materials and Manufacturing; Creative Industries; Information and Communications Technology (ICT); Life Sciences; Energy and Environment; Financial and Professional Services. A further three were added later: Food and Farming; Construction; and Tourism.

It is an approach that makes a virtue of necessity. There will not be enough funding available to make it possible, other than in exceptional circumstances, to continue to subsidise firms to come to or stay in Wales on the scale attempted in the past, even if such an approach was considered desirable or had been proved conclusively to work in the past. And, because the notion of picking winners – choosing businesses that seemed likely to succeed – has become somewhat discredited, the emphasis has shifted to identifying sectors that are worth encouraging.

So, how much has been achieved since the strategy was unveiled in its initial form under the Labour-Plaid coalition and since the panels consisting of experts across the different sectors set to work last year? The answer, sadly, seems to the outside observer to be not an awful lot. Sector teams within the Welsh Government have been in place for some time and the advisory panels – comprising some of Wales’s leading business people – were mostly in place by this time last year. Yet the first batch of advice statements presented to the minister for Business, Enterprise, Technology and Science, Edwina Hart, collectively offer little evidence that the panels have very much idea how the (sometimes very woolly) notions and objectives they propose will be transferred into employment, products and value for the Welsh economy.

Take for instance the financial service sector, the summary advice from which rarely gets beyond the almost embarrassingly banal and unachievably optimistic. Its vision is to “make Wales the most competitive region in the UK for financial and professional services outside London by 2021”. One of its challenges is to “grow employment in the F&PS (its acronym) sector from 124,000 to 200,000 by 2021, while another is to grow jobs and GVA in our sector faster than the UK average”. A “key driver” is summed up in this baffling statement: “The 1.4m population living in the Cardiff City Region, and its close proximity to London make Cardiff one of Europe’s fastest growing cities.”

Among the drivers identified to achieve the above are the “rich pool” of 124,000 F&PS professionals currently working in Wales. Or again “Wales is the European centre for web-enabled emerging technologies and with cost comparison sites for Moneysupermarket.com, GoCompare. Confused.com and MMA” [sic]. Then again “the UK’s only enterprise zone dedicated to the F&PS sector is in the heart of Cardiff and it offers fast broadband and capacity for an additional 40,000 staff in new ‘low carbon’ buildings”. Or it might, when it has been built, one could add.

The suggested strategic priorities include the need to “sell Wales’s business propositions to the world and particularly London” and provide training support to improve the “rich pool [again] of professionals available for fast-growing businesses”. To deliver the vision it will among other things “target international financial and professional services businesses”, initially in London, “offer a flexible whole of Government approach with generous funding” and engage the largest 100 F&PS companies in Wales, and develop a three year business plan identifying growth opportunities for them”.

One wonders how much it costs to produce these pearls of wishful thinking or indeed whether anyone on the panel has looked back at the papers left behind by the South East Wales Financial Initiative headed by long time City financier, Godfrey Jillings, in the 1990s. Surprise, surprise, even then, Jillings was reported as saying it was not grants that would attract inward investors. Cardiff and the rest of south Wales would secure professional services because of its “advanced electronic communications and high calibre staff”. Jillings was clear most of the investment in Wales would be back office functions and indeed this has proved to be case. The latest incarnation of Wales as a financial centre so far seems not to have come up with any ideas as to what businesses or business operations it will constitute, leave alone how the journey from boosterism to bricks and mortar will be made.

To be fair not all the sector reports are as poor and the panels have recruited some serious businesspeople – Sir Chris Evans, Ron Jones of Tinopolis and Dan Clayton Jones to name three. The Life Sciences sector summary advice pertinently identifies the lack of awareness internationally and indeed in Wales of some of the very good work being done within the sector. It criticises the sector for a lack of collective ambition, shared vision and overall plan, adding that it seems to be without spark, confidence, experience, leadership and personality. It calls for a full and clear picture of the sector to be developed by Government and for the creation of a dynamic ecosystem bringing together the main participants, including academia.

It also wants the life sciences team to deliver a full programme of international trade and investment activity to guide and support businesses to access markets outside Wales, to attract foreign investment to Wales and to project a credible and persuasive Life Sciences brand. Wisely, it observes that while it is confident the approach it suggests will deliver significant business growth and obvious economic benefits, Wales must, given the competitive nature of the sector, measure itself robustly against past performance and competitor regions. Robustly is clearly the key word here.

The ICT sector panel starts with the rather depressing observation that its sector, too, is largely invisible on the world stage and has actually seen a decline in companies and employees since 2002. It identifies priorities – stronger links between suppliers, and users of ICT products and services, public sector procurement opportunities, and increased R&D, but the delivery mechanisms it suggests – active marketing and communication of Wales’s ICT message, for example, or closer engagement with companies in the sector can be little more than holding comments.

There are some sensible recommendations, too, from the creative industries panel which wants the sector among other things to focus resources on those creative businesses which sell or license products and services to markets outside Wales, and to ensure that training and education relevant to the sector are aligned to the needs of business and the digital economy. It also has some clear ideas as to how the priorities could be delivered, for example through continued Welsh presence at trade fairs, access to finance – particularly for export-oriented businesses and a strong Wales Location Service. The advanced materials and manufacturing panel is clearly not up to speed, however, filling its advice with oodles of management speak and not much else.

It is of course easy to criticise but the evidence available to the public of the work done so far by several of the panels suggest the intellectual input – whether by the panels or the teams they are meant to advise – has not been as rich a harvest for a year’s work as might have been expected in terms of original ideas or clear mapping of the way ahead, to put it mildly. This, of course, is bound to raise questions over whether the panels and the teams they advise are going to be a match for the sort of competition they will face around the world for just the sort of sector investment they are seeking to encourage in Wales.

Though a large part of their work will be stimulating existing and potential new Welsh businesses they will also be looking out for inward investment and here they have to remember they are up against the Irish, whose approach includes high octane advertising day in, day out on the US Bloomberg business channel. Ireland, of course, now has just captured Twitter for its ICT portfolio, where it will join Google (2,200 people), Paypal (1,300), E-bay (1,100), Facebook (300), Linked-In (140), not to mention AOL and Yahoo.

What this makes clear is that other regions are not waiting for Wales to get its act together and if we are to have a sector strategy that is effective it needs to be reach top speed quickly and to have strong and rigorous intellectual underpinnings. Vague aspirations will not work.

March 6th 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Aberdare to Cern

The Swansea-educated director of the Large Hadron Collider project in Geneva has become one of the most identifiable Welsh scientists of his day, writes Rhys David

lyn-evans

Wales has produced a number of outstanding scientists over recent years, many going on to achieve the prestige of a Fellowship of the Royal Society, but one above all others has achieved a public prominence in recent years.

When the £6bn Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the Cern international physics laboratory in Geneva was switched on in the autumn of 2008, the unmistakeable Aberdare tones of its director, Dr Lyn Evans, were heard around the world announcing the start of the world’s biggest scientific experiment. Over the next few years it is set to answer some of the most fundamental questions about the nature of the universe (or the multiverse, if the theory of multiple universes is correct).

Nearly two years later Dr. Evans, who has spent most of  his life at Cern, has retired. The project has not resulted in a meltdown of planet Earth as some scientists forewarned, it has survived an embarrassing months long shutdown nine days after it was turned on when a short circuit blew a hole in the 17 mile long, five mile diameter vacuum pipe buried up to 600 ft. underground, and is now running at high power and turning out an estimated 100,000 DVDs worth of data a year.

For Dr Evans the project represents the crowning achievement of a career which started in the science laboratories at Aberdare Grammar School in the 1950s. The teaching of science there was good, he recalls, and the teachers were highly respected. “The school offered a level of education you would only get nowadays in public schools,” Dr Evans believes.

University College, Swansea, where he did his first degree and a Ph.D. in plasma physics cultivated his interest in a scientific career. The college was an early collaborator with Cern among British universities, sending a stream of talented graduates and post-grads to Geneva starting with the late Eifionydd Jones to co-operate on experiments there. Indeed, Swansea scientists have played a big role Cern experiments into anti-matter, one of the constituent elements in the universe.

The LHC has been built to send two simultaneous accelerated beams of hydrogen nuclei in opposite directions around the collider and these are then directed by magnets to crash into each other. The resultant explosions recreate conditions a pica second – one hundredth of a billionth of a second to be precise – after earth’s creation 13.5bn years ago. The debris from these can then be analysed. Optical systems – high powered telescopes and the like – can by contrast only take us back 1bn years, Dr. Evans points out.

The outcome is not going to be a sudden “find” in the middle of all this activity – instead the scientists at Cern will be looking through all those DVDs worth of data for statistical patterns that current physics knowledge cannot explain. The prize that has been most publicly identified is the Higgs Boson, which Dr Evans believes could take two years to recognise. At present scientists only really understand atoms which account for roughly 4 per cent of matter, with dark energy (73 per cent) and dark matter (25 per cent) still a mystery. The Higgs Boson, if and when it is proved to exist, could explain how matter acquires mass. Another important scientific theory the LHC could help to verify is supersymmetry, the idea that for every fundamental particle a far heavier super particle can exist. This is the main candidate to make up most of dark matter.

Though no longer officially in charge, Dr Evans has continued to live near Cern and to take part in two important research exercises there, but he has also found more time to involve himself in educational activities. A visiting professor at Imperial College, London, he is passionate about getting more young people interested in science as a career. Nor is this lack of interest just a British problem, he notes. In Europe generally, he notes, the number of young people interested in science is going down. “Europe needs more scientifically trained people or it will be in trouble in 20 years’ time. Not everyone can be a research scientist but modern industry needs scientifically educated people. This applies particularly in Wales because we have to attract high technology industries.”

Visits to India and a  number of other developing countries have convinced him the level of education is increasingly very high. Wales, too, he argues must have a highly educated population. In this respect the Welsh Government’s recognition of the importance of scientific education and its appointment of a science adviser are seen by Dr Evans as important steps, for which he argues Rhodri Morgan, former First Minister, deserves credit.

Much of his work now is with young people, including schools in Wales. He is involved in a big educational project in Bangor this June and through video-conferencing (where he says Welsh schools are well-equipped) he has been able to talk to as many as 30 schools at a time. Much of his focus is on how to motivate teachers, whom he sees as the key to encouraging in pupils a love of science. Another educational project will explore the frontiers between physics and biology.

Cern itself is an expensive operation and Britain, one of the founder members, contributes 12-13 per cent of the annual running costs of roughly £1bn. Can this be justified when cuts are being made across virtually all areas of Government spending? Dr Evans is, understandably, in no doubt. There have firstly been important spin-offs, including medical advances. The University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff is one of a number of hospitals worldwide that has a Positron Emission Tomography scanner (costing £16m) that arose from Cern’s work. It  enables doctors to see regions of high metabolic activity in the body, helping to establish the malignity or otherwise of tumours. Cern, which was crucial to the original development of the world wide web is also behind a more advanced grid for sharing data.

Beyond these direct benefits there is a wider educational role. Cern has 2,300 staff, 783 fellows and 9,534 users – young people, mainly post doctoral students, learning to work at the frontiers of knowledge. Not all of them end up in particle physics but take up other high-powered careers where the analytical skills they have honed at Cern can be put to good use. Cern itself shares its results with collaborating institutions around the world, which help to analyse the data.  “It is becoming much more difficult to prise out the last secrets of nature. This is why we have to co-operate,” he notes.

This ability to co-operate would seem to be a British – and Welsh – quality and to have helped the UK play a leading role in Cern. “That is one of my attributes – I have been good at getting people to work together,” Dr Evans confides. It is an ability he hopes he can now bring to getting science back to a stronger place in British education.

March 2nd 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time to work together

Rivalries in south east Wales are holding back change and need to be buried, Rhys David argues

The nature and the scope of the relationship that should prevail between Cardiff and its hinterland is one of the great unresolved issues within the Welsh polity. It involves at one level the physical boundaries of the various local government and other authorities governing the area. Is Greater Cardiff, to use that taboo term, Cardiff and the Valleys, Cardiff and the Vale, or Cardiff, the Vale and the Valleys?

At another level what should the responsibilities of those authorities be and at which tiers should they be vested? Even more importantly where within a more co-ordinated region should scarce resources best be directed to ensure the greatest prosperity for all?

These are all important issues open to debate but, as a recent IWA conference Getting Ahead Together: Connecting Cardiff and the Valleys, made clear the time has now come to resolve matters and take action. Old boundaries have now become completely permeable.  Previously vibrant communities are no longer self-sufficient as they once were when jobs were close at hand. Large numbers now travel daily across the region to where the employment, the housing and the retail and leisure facilities are. In practice, if not in form, the city region is already here.

How much better therefore to plan for the allocation of resources on this much wider basis, so that important decisions on where housing would be best placed, on how most efficiently to deal with transport provision and waste management, how best to ensure south east Wales is a strong contender for economic development projects and how it makes the most of its tourist potential.

This is already being done in Scotland where the reality of city regions has been recognised. Across the world, too, some of the most successful cities such as Manchester, Stuttgart, and Vancouver – all of which were highlighted at the conference – are those that have managed to put aside local rivalries and work and plan together, bringing tangible economic benefits to a wide population.

Yet if Wales is to go down this route – probably in Cardiff first  but later in other parts of the country – there has to be buy-in from all concerned and not the residual feeling that this is just the capital on another aggrandising trip. In Manchester this has happened. The spokesman for the Manchester “brand” is now as likely to come from Wigan or Bury as from the city itself.

We need to reach the same degree of consensus in south-east Wales so that someone from Nantymoel or Abertysswg can feel as confident about projecting the Cardiff region as a Cardiff & Co ambassador. For this to happen everyone in the region must feel – and see tangible evidence – that they, too, will benefit from promoting the Cardiff brand.

The problems in parts of the region, as we all know, are chronic and have responded only partially to countless previous initiatives. This is no time, therefore, to get bogged down in new local government structures. The solutions must instead be practicable and capable of swift introduction, and this is the challenge the city region task and finish group under Elizabeth Haywood set up by business and enterprise minister Edwina Hart must rise to.

Fortunately, there is one project in south-east Wales on which there is already widespread agreement and around which the region as a whole could coalesce to make a strong case to the UK Government. Electrification of the Cardiff suburban railway network – from Ebbw Vale in the East to Maesteg in the West could in itself help to invigorate south-east Wales in a way no previous public expenditure has managed.

The relevant local authorities, transport groups, the Welsh Government, and business organisations throughout the region need to come together now to create a new overarching structure that will make achievement of this goal a priority and an inevitability.

December 1st 2011

 

 

 

 

Confidence needed to shape our future

 

Rhys David looks at the work to date of the Welsh Government’s sector panels

“Welsh bio-technology company sold to world’s biggest pharmaceuticals giant in multimillion pound deal”; “Material sciences breakthrough from Swansea University labs”; “Anglesey welcomes 50th cruise ship of the year”.

These are the sort of headlines we might be hoping for from the strategy of concentrating much – but not all – of the Welsh Government’s efforts on nine key areas perceived to offer good prospects for growth, an approach announced in 2010 as part of  the then coalition’s economic renewal programme. But are we likely to be reading them any time soon in our newspapers or on our screens?

The odds, it has to be admitted, are long. Conditions in Europe are against us: the Continent’s recovery is likely to be slower than that of the US and Asia. Wales has skills and infrastructure deficits which have defeated long-standing aspirations and attempts at a cure. And competition will be tough: there are few advanced territories that have not identified sectors such as biosciences, advanced manufacturing and the creative industries as their targets.

The Welsh Government’s Sector Strategy

Six sectors were originally chosen

  • Advanced Materials and Manufacturing
  • Creative Industries
  • Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
  • Life Sciences
  • Energy and Environment
  • Financial and Professional Services

A further three were added later

  • Food and Farming
  • Construction
  • Tourism

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yet, as Lord Rowe-Beddoe said at the IWA’s recent national economy conference, breaking a 16 year vow of silence as a past chairman of the Welsh Development Agency, we need to recover some of the self-belief Wales was exhibiting in the closing years of the last century. Then, if not everything, at least quite a lot seemed possible. Lamenting the constant drip-drip effect of poor statistics and the public unease these could promote, he said we must get back to believing that we are more than capable of shaping our future. Why otherwise would inward investors want to come to Wales, he queried.

 

Cue Sir Chris Evans, another speaker at the IWA event, who just happens to be chairman of the life sciences sector panel as well as one of Europe’s most successful scientific entrepreneurs with a record of starting 80 companies and creating new value of more than £5bn. Midway through March this year Sir Chris and Business Minister, Edwina Hart, unveiled plans for a new fund to be supported by £25m a year of public money in each of the next two years, with the aim of attracting similar amounts of match-funding from the private sector. The fund, which will have its own private sector managers based in Cardiff, is designed to support existing and incoming businesses in the life sciences sector, and to attract top scientists to work in Wales.

At the IWA conference Sir Chris had identified what he saw as the sector’s main problem in Wales: commercialization and internationalization of activities once companies had been started up and begun to grow. As the most tangible outcome so far from the sector strategy exercise it is undeniably impressive and certainly sets a benchmark for the other sectors to follow. Here, however, the results so far have been mixed. Some panels – and it has to be remembered nearly all have been in place for more than a year – seem to be barely beyond the stage of sketching out where their sectors stand.

Take for instance the financial service sector. Its advice to the minister describes its vision thus: “To make Wales the most competitive region in the UK for financial and professional services outside London by 2021”. One of its challenges is to “grow employment in the F&PS (its acronym) sector from 124,000 to 200,000 by 2021, while another is to grow jobs and GVA [Gross Value Added] in our sector faster than the UK average”. A “key driver” is summed up in this baffling statement: “The 1.4m population living in the Cardiff City Region, and its close proximity to London make Cardiff one of Europe’s fastest growing cities.

The suggested strategic priorities include the need to “sell Wales’s business propositions to the world and particularly London” and provide training support to improve the “rich pool of professionals available for fast-growing businesses”. To deliver the vision it will among other things “target international financial and professional services  businesses”, “offer a flexible whole of Government approach with generous funding” and engage the largest 100 F&PS companies in Wales, and “develop a three year business plan identifying growth opportunities for them”.

Similar pearls of wishful thinking have sadly been heard before. Indeed, it would be worth looking back at the papers left behind by the South East Wales Financial Initiative headed by City financier, Godfrey Jillings, in the 1990s. Jillings opined then that Cardiff and the rest of south Wales would secure professional services because of its “advanced electronic communications and high calibre staff”. He was clear most of the investment in Wales would be back office functions and indeed this has proved to be case. Which businesses or business operations the latest incarnation of Wales as a financial centre will comprise or what form Government support should take is not defined by the latest panel, leave alone how the journey from boosterism to bricks and mortar will be made.

To be fair there are some sensible ideas in the various reports and some senior businesspeople have been recruited.  The ICT panel starts with the rather depressing observation that its sector is largely invisible on the world stage and has actually seen a decline in companies and employees since 2002. It identifies priorities – stronger links between suppliers, and users of ICT products and services, public sector procurement opportunities, and increased R&D, but the delivery mechanisms it suggests – active marketing and communication of Wales’s ICT message, for example, or closer engagement with companies in the sector – can be little more than holding comments.

There are some sensible recommendations from the creative industries panel which wants the sector among other things to focus resources on those creative businesses which sell or license products and services to markets outside Wales, and to ensure that training and education relevant to the sector are aligned to the needs of business and the digital economy. It also has ideas as to how the priorities could be delivered, for example through continued Welsh presence at trade fairs, access to finance – particularly for export-oriented businesses – and a strong Wales Location Service. Likewise the advanced materials and manufacturing panel wants to see clear milestones established, a much stronger evidence base, strategic evaluation of capital projects and a defined delivery mechanism to govern the sector’s path along the agreed route map. Good stuff but not the flesh on the bones that is needed, a criticism that applies to most of the panels.

One nagging doubt about the sector strategy and its chances of success is bound to be a point made by Professor Garel Rhys of Cardiff University at the recent House of Commons select affairs committee hearings into the Welsh economy. Referring specifically to inward investment and the re-organisations that had taken place, including the abolition of overseas arm International Business Wales, he claimed the Welsh administration in Cardiff was short of the right sort of competence. Many young officials, he felt, lacked experience and feared getting things wrong. “The base unit of decision-making is increasingly the sector team. However, so many of these are so small they cannot do very much.” He adds later: “Potential investors all too often feel that they are being shunted back-and-forth when they try to establish contact with the Welsh administration and to no real effect. The experience… is more driven by ticking boxes than by decision-making. Some investors have been moved on by sectors that felt a project was too big for them, others felt they were facing “boys with toys” who displayed a failure to understand the nature and significance of a project.”

Similar though somewhat less trenchant doubts about the capacity of the Welsh civil service were expressed at the IWA conference which clearly will have to be operating at its most competitive and commercially-minded if the sector strategy is to deliver the goods. Where led by as forceful, decisive and successful a character as Sir Chris Evans, the process of establishing a clear strategy and implementing it will clearly be driven along at a rapid pace and it is likely officials too will be galvanized. Every single one of the panels, however, will need to be as pro-active. They will need in each and every case to be a combination of powerful and industry experienced members with forthright ideas on how to inject “velocity” – one of the key words at the IWA conference – and experienced Government officials with the authority and courage to make tough decisions.

Time is clearly pressing, as the latest unfavourable – though in many ways misleading – comparisons of Wales with Greece and Romania make clear. If we fail to get the latest structure for delivering economic growth both right and capable of delivering,  there is a real danger the good old Welsh economic jalopy – registration number GVA 78 – will just chug along as before, the sat nav constantly demanding a series of U-turns, lefts and rights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Merthyr’s Progress

Rhys David measures the gap between vision and reality in the contemporary development of the first town of the industrial revolution

Is Merthyr Tydfil getting there? For those who only know the Welsh borough from its usual ranking at the foot of a range of prosperity and health league tables, the question might hardly seem worth asking. Yet, in the view of Alistair Neill, the determinedly optimistic Scots chief executive of the council, the figures that usually make the newspapers reflect a different past from which the area is now escaping.

According to Neill, a former senior executive with a number of multinational companies who is now in his seventh year at Merthyr, perceptions of the town are changing – whether they be those of its own residents, those returning after a long absence, or potential investors. Census Office statistics suggest that after declining for most of the past 100 years to a point where Wales’s once biggest town is now home to fewer than 60,000 people, the population has grown in each of the past two years, and is expected to continue to do so, albeit modestly.

The body blows that have hit the town over recent years have not stopped. The most recent was the cessation of manufacturing at the iconic Hoover plant, Merthyr’s biggest employer in the post-war period. It still has daunting socio-economic problems with some of the highest rates of sickness and lowest skills not just in Wales but in Britain as a whole.

Nevertheless, Neill argues, much of what was set out in Vision 2010, the plan adopted shortly after his arrival, has been achieved, starting with a transformation in the services provided by ‘Team Merthyr’, the 4,000 people who work for the borough. The Local Government Data Unit’s 2008 annual assessment found Merthyr to be the highest performing council in Wales. This was a marked turnaround from earlier Audit Office reviews that had identified it as a potentially failing council where intervention might be needed.

The changes have been brought about first of all by making sure councillors enjoyed a greater role in policy formulation – rather than implementation – and by ensuring staff were more aware of  what was going on in departments other than their own and could contribute ideas more widely. Improvements have been sought through a bottom up rather than top down approach. “We wanted staff to know that their actions did make a difference and we were keen improvement teams were not just run by senior management. Someone on reception who sees 200 people coming in to the council each day is going to have a powerful set of views on how we react to visitors,” Neill says.

Working with the Welsh Government and a range of other partners, the council has been able to embark on a large scale programme of regeneration across the town. In part, Neill explains, the aim has been to provide for the people of Merthyr, and its catchment area of up to 300,000 people across the Heads of the Valleys, a range of facilities and services not previously available but which would be taken for granted in most communities across Britain.

A new retail park has brought in big name outlets such as Debenhams, Next and JJB Sports and also family restaurants. Such has been its popularity, a 65,000sq.ft Tesco superstore on land alongside the station has already had to add an upper deck to its surface car park. It is seen as a key support for smaller niche and locally-owned shops nearer the centre of town. The pedestrianised town centre has been paved in granite, and it is hoped one of its previously disused buildings, the old Town Hall, will re-emerge as a theatre and arts centre – a facility the town currently lacks.

A new business park has also provided the accommodation modern enterprises require and the Welsh Government has moved its social justice department to a site just outside the centre. Though many of those working there will be commuting from Cardiff, it is hoped some will decide to settle permanently and as staff move on they will, it is expected, be replaced by locally recruited replacements.

So, much of the ‘hardware’ – the town centre, new leisure, retail and business parks, riverside and heritage trails – have been put in place or repaired. Stock transfer of the council’s housing to a housing association promises to release substantial funds for bringing properties up to modern standards.

More difficult will be the ‘software’ – the educational attainment of school leavers, the  skill levels of the working population, the poor health of not just the elderly retired but of many of those of working age. The investment that has taken place will be of little long term value if those problems cannot be sorted out.

An unstated part of the overall strategy has been to make people feel better about living and enjoying life, leisure and work in Merthyr and hence about themselves too. The next stage is to try to turn this into more positive attitudes towards learning – the sine qua non pathway to stimulating and well-paid jobs. Though many of Merthyr’s schools have been getting positive ratings from inspections and have had new buildings, this has not been reflected in the proportion of pupils going on to achieve good GCSE and A Level results, which still lag those for the rest of Wales.

Because of Merthyr’s small size its schools have not been able to offer a wide enough choice of curriculum options at sixth form level. There is also a problem of disengagement among young people not interested in academic options, many of them, in Neill’s words, having great brains and fantastic talents but weak literacy and numeric skills.

The proposed solution – currently out for consultation and not without its opponents -is a move to a new-build post-16 tertiary education system, the Merthyr Learning Quarter. This would cater on one site for academically and vocationally orientated young people, entering through the same gates for different courses enjoying equal levels of esteem. The centre will be developed jointly with the University of Glamorgan, which merged with Merthyr College in 2006. It is hoped the new Merthyr Learning Quarter will double the number of curriculum options available and greatly increase the numbers interested in carrying on with their education beyond 16 years.

Another ambition, is a university presence in the town. The idea is not simply to add to the already long list of Welsh universities. A university institution in Merthyr would begin by offering foundation courses designed to encourage individuals who might not otherwise have the confidence or the necessary qualifications to take the first steps towards a degree. “This is about saying ‘Look, we will bring a foundation course to you, we will work with you so that you don’t have to go away to study. You can prove to yourself you can do this and go on to another university to finish it’” says Neill.

New approaches being developed jointly with the health authority and local authority social services will attempt to persuade older people not to see themselves as “poorly” or less than fully fit, a significant attitudinal problem in the area.  The aim will be to try to keep people away from hospital, or, later, a care home.

For other age groups a health park is planned opposite the retail park which will bring together GP surgeries, and a range of other primary care services, with a strong emphasis on the importance of diet and leisure activity as a means of maintaining health and preventing illness. It is hoped that this prevention strategy will reduce the high numbers in the area on incapacity benefit and speed their return to the workforce.

The aim is for the Merthyr that emerges from all this activity to have a growing population with higher skills and greater confidence and fewer individuals on benefits. At the same time infrastructure will improve. The town centre will be renewed with good communications along the upgraded Heads of the Valleys road and the A470, plus a doubling in the frequency of train services to Cardiff. Merthyr will be in a much better position to market its dramatic geographical situation and its potential as the southern gateway to the Brecon Beacons. All of which should make the town more attractive for investors

The gap between vision and reality could, of course, remain wide, particularly if the resources needed to complete developments in the pipeline – like the tertiary system – are not made available as a result of forthcoming public sector expenditure cuts. With the era of significant large scale overseas investment projects now over, it will be a challenge to create the jobs needed to keep an increased population in work, even if skill levels can be dramatically improved. And, of course, there always remains the prospect that the brightest and best will continue to flow out to the Welsh coastal plain and beyond.

There is an institutional danger, too, that the constant urge to re-organise public sector organisations in Wales – this time to reduce the number of local authorities from the present 22 – could yet see the borough distracted by further upheaval just as its plans begin to show promise.

For the moment, however, there is enough going on in the town and sufficient plans for a brighter future for the gloomy statistics not to appear to be all that the town is about. As Neill says: “Merthyr’s place in the past is secure as a driving force of the industrial revolution. Its current regeneration aims to restore it to a significant status in the economy and life of south Wales once again.”

March 3rd 2010

The Welsh cog in world aeroengines

Mention Nantgarw to Weng Jiabao, the Chinese premier, and his eyes will light up. The second most powerful man in the world’s most populous nation is one of a stream of dignitaries who have visited the giant GE aero-engine maintenance plant near the former mining village close to Cardiff and come away highly impressed. Indeed, on a  visit to London several years later he made sure the former Welsh Development Agency chairman, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, received an invitation to one of the occasion’s formal dinners and sought him out to tell him  he would never forget the hospitality he had received (or in all probability the opportunity to press some of the buttons on the huge pieces of test equipment on site).

GE’s 1.2m sq. ft Cardiff plant, like the Nissan plant in Sunderland or the Halewood factory of Jaguar Land-Rover, both of which have recently benefited from investment by their overseas owners, is an illustration that Britain’s less favoured areas can cut it in big and competitive engineering operations. Employing more than 1,000 highly skilled individuals, the plant, winner of the Company of the Year trophy in the most recent IWA Business Awards, is in the words of its Welsh managing director, Adrian Button,  harder to get into than Oxbridge.

It recruits from around 10 miles  for its 25 annual apprenticeships, receiving more than 900 applications in the latest search.  After an initial three years apprentices spend another two  training on the job before becoming fully productive,  a five year investment by the company in its staff.  There are a further 50 graduate or sandwich course interns who join for a year across a range of management and engineering disciplines and are then taken on if they and the company decide they like each other. “It’s not possible any longer simply to put an advertisement in the paper and recruit the people we need,” says Button.

With a turnover of more than £1.2bn a year GE’s Welsh plant is a big cog in the wheel that keeps the world’s aircraft flying, looking after a total of  90 power plants at any one time and sending back to airlines this year a total of 500 good-as-new engines that could then stay on wing for a period of five to six years and last up to 40 years. Engines are trucked into Nantgarw from many parts of the world and are subjected to inpection by borescope (a flexible telescope for looking into inaccessible locations) so that engineers can determine what work needs to be done.

Some may need to be completely disassembled into as many as 20,000 pieces, which will then be cleaned, non-destructively tested, and x-rayed, for the serviceability of each part to be determined. They are then repaired, replaced and put back together, firstly as modules. Some will be sent to other GE centres of excellence as far away as the US or Singapore for specialist repair. Nantgarw itself carries out such work on behalf of the group on large engine cases. After repair every engine is put through further tests typically lasting six hours, before a final test replicating conditions encountered in flying, in particular take-off.

The Nantgarw plant looks after several different engine types but principally the CFM56, the world’s most popular engine with 20,000 currently in service worldwide on narrow body aircraft. The plant also has other engine work, notably the GE90, the  biggest aero-engine in service, developed exclusively for the Boeing 777. “We are lucky here that the engines we have the capability for are leading-edge, new technology products. All airlines are looking to buy aircraft powered by the most efficient engines,”says Button, a Llantrisant native who joined GE as a quality engineer, then went off to run a GE ignition plant in Jacksonville in the US  before returning to manage Nantgarw.

Nantgarw’s competition is both internal and external from some 20-30 plants sharing at least some of its competencies across the globe. Some airlines, such as Air France/KLM and Delta in the US, have their own maintenance operations and indeed GE’s Welsh plant derives from a previous British Airways facility set up after the second world war. British Airways remains a big customer as, too, are Emirates and several Chinese airlines.  The low cost airlines –  big narrow body airline operators relying heavily on the CFM56 – figure prominently in the order book, preferring not to undertake their own maintenance. Easyjet, Ryanair, Tui and Thomson among others all send their engines to Nantgarw.

Business like this has to be won, however, not just in competition with other big maintenance organisations but against other GE plants. Parent GE, which has long held on to a position among the world’s top ten companies, with products ranging across financial services, healthcare, imaging and power generation as well as aero-engines, has aviation division plants at several locations in Britain, in Prague, Singapore, Malaysia, Brazil, and across the US. The CFM56 and the other engines Nantgarw works on is maintained in a number of these and they could either win or be allocated work the Welsh plant currently handles in negotiations the parent has with the airlines.

Nantgarw has managed to continue to thrive, however, generating profits for its owner. “We always run the risk of losing  to competitors. We are never the lowest on cost. Others will have rates of labour that are much lower but we win work based on the quality of what we produce here in Wales and on our turnaround times,” says Button. “Our workforce is highly skilled with a  technical background second to none. Another advantage, he asserts, is that as a small country Wales has the capacity to move quickly. Support from the Welsh Government  – which last year  helped to fund 100 posts being created to service the GE90 – has been strong. Close links have also been established with local universities, including, a few miles further north along the A470, Glamorgan, which has its own aeronautical department.

To continue to offer  high quality, well-paid jobs the plant must, according to Button, continue to win business to work on the latest GE engines. The Boeing 777’s new triple composite engine, is a target. “We would like to have the investment to offer that.” It is a business, too, in which nurturing good customer relationships is vital. The Nantgarw team has to make sure that airlines from as far afield as China that currently entrust it with their aircraft are willing to continue to do so.

As a good corporate citizen, GE has reciprocated Government and local support. Its  social responsibility programme  has won  a number of awards, including at another IWA  ceremony, the Inspire Wales Awards 2012, for its work with Llamau, a charity helping socially excluded, homeless young people in south Wales. It has strong relationships with a number of schools in the area and has recently broken through the £1m mark of support for children’s hospice, Ty Hafan. It has also made efforts to attract more girls on to its apprenticeship schemes but finds itself  up against the choices girls make at 13. If they have not been able to offer maths and sciences at GCSE they are unlikely to secure places.

As far as possible purchases are made locally, though much of the plant’s requirements has to be obtained from international suppliers. Nevertheless, some £20m a year is spent locally on support and other purchases, and items such as tools are also obtained locally if possible.

Complacency would nevertheless be dangerous. The aviation business is already growing much faster in developing markets such as China, India, Brazil and the Middle East than in Europe where a greater degree of saturation has been achieved and it is inevitable that aero-engine maintenance will grow just as rapidly in those territories. It also means, however, there is a bigger world market for Nantgarw to chase.

More could be done, Button believes,  to improve Welsh competitiveness. GE would like to bring freight into Cardiff Airport but finds it has to use London Heathrow or Manchester. Nantgarw reports to GE Aviation’s headquarters is in Cincinnati so a direct flight from Cardiff to the US would also be helpful, a priority other businesspeople in Wales have also identified.

The key, however, is to stay at the forefront of GE Aviation’s business. “The plant currently has the capability to work on engines that have a potential life of 40 years so we have that market in front of us. We have to maintain that  position. We are not going to sit back. We must go out and grow, “ Button says.

Rhys David

June 18th 2012