Sector strategy: Vague aspirations will not work

 

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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

Time for Welsh rivals 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

Nantgarw: 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

Brexit: Seminal Event or Secular disaster?

Brexit could be a turning-point in more ways than one but much will depend on implementation and what follows, Rhys David suggests.

Peak oil, when the maximum rate of extraction, followed by decline, is reached, keeps getting pushed back but does the Brexit vote suggest peak globalisation – the progressive breaking down of barriers to global free trade – has been reached or perhaps faces a significant pause?

Economists have been worrying about a slowing down in the process for some years and their fears will certainly have been given momentum. Even before Brexit the signs were there in a slowing down in merchandise trade compared with the two decades leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. China, the export industries of which have been the driver behind the rapid growth in trade since the 1990s, has slowed down and is seeking to re-orient its investment towards the domestic market; and trade deals such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have become more difficult to negotiate in the face of opposition from trade unions and others in Europe. They fear further marketization of the European economy, including cherished sectors such as healthcare.

Following the June 23rd vote Britain now needs to negotiate its own trade deals outside the EU in a world where multilateral organisations set up to promote freer trade, such as the World Trade Organisation, have been losing their potency and becoming increasingly side-lined by the spread of bilateral deals. Across developed economies the impact of austerity is, too, continuing to be felt with some economies, such as Italy, unlikely to reach pre-crisis levels and hence consumer demand for internationally traded products until the 2020s.

How could this threat to what has seemed an inevitable progression have come about when so many people across Europe, including Britain, have benefitted greatly from freer trade? The price of those two human necessities – food and clothing – has fallen in recent years, helping to keep inflation at near record low levels. The previously inexorable rise in the price of running a car or a vehicle fleet has dropped as a result of an oil glut. Every imaginable commodity can now be summoned to the door with a few computer keystrokes from the mega-warehouses deployed across the Continent by Amazon and its competitors. In recent months British airports have been reporting record numbers of Britons flying away to take advantage of cheap flights and accommodation. Are we now be entering a period when barriers could creep up again?

Britons, albeit with a small majority, appear to have rejected the very instrument that has brought about these trading benefits – the EU. Why? Is there not a safety net for those poorer areas that have suffered from the global economic transformation brought about by the interaction of two factors – the standard shipping container and information technology, the combination of which lies behind today’s almost instant servicing of consumer needs and desires? What about all those blue signs proudly crediting the EU for the roads, bridges, arts centres and other projects in Britain’s poorer regions?

All true but if the British public has shot itself in the foot (and if some in other Continental nations are tempted to do the same) it could have done so in the true sense of the expression rather than the one in which it is now usually used. Like the World War One soldiers who carried out this act, it could be because they actively wanted to avoid something worse (going into battle in the case of the poor bloody infantry) rather than as an act of unintended self-harm. It could be that in rejecting the EU market vision, they are saying they also want a different kind of Britain.

At a recent finance conference in London in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote there was a sheepish acceptance on the part of several speakers that while Joe Public had indeed sprung an unwelcome surprise, the elite classes as represented by the overpaid denizens of the City of London had in large measure brought it on themselves. One admittedly pro-Brexit speaker at the FT’s Festival of Finance suggested neo-liberal policies as favoured by the EU had been oversold, with promises made that we would be moving into a period of permanent prosperity. The medicine globalisation would force on ordinary citizens would, like castor oil, taste horrible, they had been told, but it would be good for them in the end.

Instead, it had proved hard to swallow and had not made most feel any better. Wages for many people, including the middle classes had stayed the same or got worse; houses had become unaffordable and young people were unable to leave home to set up on their own; neighbourhoods where individuals had grown up and where parents and grandparents had lived before them now seemed unfamiliar as a result of large numbers of migrants moving in; schools with scores of languages being spoken were making people feel uncomfortable about the impact on their children’s educational prospects; moreover, austerity policies as a result of the financial crises of 2008 and its consequences had torn away large parts of the social security safety net on which the poor relied.

In a perceptive piece written four months before the Referendum vote the left-wing commentator John Harris writing in The Guardian could see what was coming, declaring that, although a Remain supporter himself, he had respect for the Leavers. On the Conservative side David Cameron had famously described UKIP as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, and one of his colleagues saw them as “mad, swivel-eyed loonies”. On the left, Harris noted, millions of Britons were seen as “gullible, if feeling charitable; as nasty and bigoted, when things turn cruel”. Harris had visited parts of Britain – the small towns of the agricultural East -where free movement was a reality, and where as a result, he argued “people had a feeling that huge and rapid social changes had been imposed on them by a power beyond anyone’s reach”.

In other parts of the country, too, there has undoubtedly been a feeling in older working class areas for some time that the system was rigged against them. The Brexit vote was a way of saying enough was enough. Literally billions have been spent in the south east on shiny infrastructure projects – Crossrail, Thameslink 2000, a £900m new station at Reading, with Heathrow’s new runway or some alternative still to come. Wales, by contrast, struggles to put together the funding to finance a relief road around Newport to remove M4 bottlenecks without breaking the budget, or to create a modest metro system on existing rail-tracks to better connect Cardiff with the poorer valleys that surround it.

People have tired of being told that spending on Heathrow, Crossrail or wherever will really benefit them 200 or 300 miles away because of some long-promised but never-delivered trickle-down effects. Nor is there much confidence HS2 will make Britain less centripetally focused on London. Yet, the concentration of infrastructure spending in the southeast has been rendered necessary because of a heavily over-stimulated finance sector much of which has largely detached itself from the rest of the British economy in order to service the needs of the multinational corporations central to global capitalism.

Other examples of unfairness can be cited. Agonised discussions over ways of relieving the pensions liabilities at Tata as a means of saving the company’s British jobs contrast powerfully with the sweetheart tax deals that British Governments over recent years have offered multinationals such as Google and Amazon, the latter itself responsible for changes in retailing that have destroyed thousands of jobs on British High Streets.

And, of course, there is the issue of executive pay. UK chief executives, backed by self-serving remuneration committees have become the beneficiaries of absurdly high pay packages and bonuses which often seem to bear no resemblance to performance. At the same time to reward shareholders, companies have chosen to retain profits and hire cheaper labour rather than share the benefits with their employees or invest in new technology that would help to boost Britain’s poor productivity record. Trade unions and many of their members have begun to realise that the vastly bigger labour market which employers could choose to dip into is not, as they had hoped and been promised, going to produce a one-off jolt to workers in industries across Britain but a permanent and long-lasting negative impact on their wages and their prospects.

To this extent the momentous decision taken by a small majority of the British people is not anti-immigrant per se or anti-Europe but a sign that sometimes ordinary people can see more clearly than their “betters” and, called upon to speak, have said, “All this is wrong. You promised us that globalisation/EU membership would bring prosperity but where we once made goods or delivered services we could be proud of we now despatch orders for products made half way around the globe to wealthy customers from an Amazon warehouse where our every activity is tracked and monitored.”

It will be argued that these examples of unfairness felt by ordinary people up and down the country could all be put right within the existing British political structure while retaining EU membership. After all, Government can still, despite the EU, legislate on executive pay, choose more broadly where to place infrastructure spending, and impose higher taxes – particularly on excessive rewards – to fund more generous social security payments It has not, however, happened.

Likewise, if there are aspects of the EU that we find unacceptable – its lack of accountability, its overweening bureaucracy, or perceived democratic deficiencies – we should, it will be argued, stay in and press for reform. The counter to this, however, is that campaigners have been calling for reform for most of the 40 years Britain has been a member with few tangible results. This in itself is hardly surprising, given that agreement has to be achieved on every occasion among 28 members, possibly to be joined by others in the years ahead. It is not hard to argue that the EU has become just too unwieldy for its own good or that even more importantly that it can never resolve its serious internal economic problems unless it proceeds to full political as well as economic union – a process Britain has always resolutely opposed.

Though the EU has always muddled through this fundamental structural weakness was identified a very long time ago and has been repeated many times since. Writing in the London Review of Books in October 1992 before the introduction of the Euro, the economist, Wynne Godley pointed out: “What happens if a whole country – a potential region in a fully integrated community- suffers a structural setback? So long as it is a sovereign state it can devalue its currency. It can then trade successfully at full employment, provided its people accept the necessary cuts in their real incomes. With an economic and monetary union this recourse is entirely barred and its prospect is grave indeed, unless federal budgeting arrangements are made which fulfil a redistributive role …There has to be quid pro quo for giving up the devaluation option in the form of fiscal redistribution…If a country or region has no power to devalue, then there is nothing to stop it suffering a process of cumulative and terminal decline, leading in the end to emigration as the only alternative to poverty or starvation.” One example of the distortions EU policies are creating will suffice. In 2016, as The Guardian reported a few weeks back there are 25,000 Greek doctors in Germany. Surely Greece did not unwittingly train 25,000 more doctors than it needed?

It is some of these central issues relating to the EU, international capitalism and globalisation which the public in their wisdom have grasped well ahead of their politicians. So it is interesting that in her manifesto ahead of winning the job Theresa May the new Prime Minister made tackling one of these – executive pay – one of her first promises, called for employee and consumer representation on boards, spoke up for the defence of important industrial sectors, and made the moral case for taxation. Following her appointment, she has gone further, declaring her government will be driven not by the interests of the few but by those of ordinary people. Implementation – and there will be many opponents in business and elsewhere –  must follow but if it does they are changes that could bring reality to all the previous pledges made by Governments of all hues to tackle imbalances and inequalities in society.

It will only become apparent over a period of time whether Brexit will prove a turning point for globalisation as a whole, with other countries looking to adopt an as yet largely ill-defined British model, much as privatisation swept the world in the era when neo-Liberal policies were gaining ascendancy in the 1980s. As the days pass, however, it is starting to look more like a seminal event and perhaps not the secular disaster many had predicted.

 

Rhys David

July 13th 2016