Wales can do better in 2012

Rhys David looks back on how the country met the challenges he set for it in 2011

The winter weather always brings increased health anxieties but last year this column pointed out that Wales suffered from more than just seasonal problems. It suggested that as a nation we were the ‘Worried Welsh’. We were obsessed with our usually not very healthy rankings in various league tables and not very clear how we could make the improvements we would all dearly love to see. It concluded there was too much breast-beating in the Brecon Beacons, an excess of angst in Anglesey, and quite enough ululation in Ynysybwl.

It went on to suggest a few areas where we could set ourselves some realistic targets and try really hard to achieve them over the next few years. Now the pessimist in all of us will say, “Go on, tell us how dismally we failed.” Well, dear reader, it is not quite like that. In some areas the nation’s Wolsey Griptops are still around its collective ankles. In others we have made pleasing progress.

Our health statistics admittedly still do not look too good, in part at least due to our over-indulgence in the wrong kinds of food. Nor have we covered ourselves in glory educationally, though since devolution it is becoming progressively more difficult to measure ourselves definitively against other parts of the UK. As the recent Gross Value Added statistics indicated, we have made a tiny move in the right direction but wealth per head remains far behind the UK average and less than half that of the richest parts of the UK. It remains a very big gap to close.

And yet, in spite of the economic problems besetting the world, and in particular the European economy, Wales has done comparatively well in one or two areas, offering encouragement that we can also improve our position in others.  Last year the lack of a single mile of electrified railway track in Wales was lamented and the fear expressed that the Great Western main line would be upgraded only to Bristol. In fact, after concerted lobbying (including by the IWA) we are promised electrification to Cardiff.

It should now not take much more of a push to secure the further 40 miles to Swansea. Just as importantly, the Government has made it clear that it is prepared to look seriously at electrification of the railway network serving Cardiff and the surrounding valleys. It will, of course, not be time to celebrate until the first overhead gantries start to appear at Severn Tunnel Junction and Queen Street Station, but the impact of these developments could be enormous, making south Wales journey times competitive with other parts of the UK and helping to create a much more integrated south-east Wales region. In the meantime, however, the lobbying cannot be relaxed.

Of course, before we become too enthused it is worth reflecting on the less than stellar performance of Cardiff Airport. This time last year it was suggested that 2011 should be the year in which it began to offer a much wider range of important European destinations. Sadly, this has not happened. Indeed during the course of last year the airport lost its main low cost carrier, bmibaby, now destined to become part of British Airways.

No doubt the owners of the airport, Spanish infrastructure group Abertis, are doing their best, but given the importance of the airport and the image it projects of Wales across the world, the Welsh Government must surely become more closely involved in shaping its future in 2012.

So where have we matched or exceeded targets in 2011? Sport has to be one of those.  This column set the Welsh Rugby team the reasonable ambition of getting to the last eight of the rugby world cup. Yet we ended up with a creditable fourth place and a real sense (in our own minds at any rate) that we would have won it but for the unfortunate sending off of the Wales captain in the fateful semi-final against France.

As so often happens in Wales, the excitable Welsh press has seized on this excellent performance to declare that Wales’s young new players could dominate world rugby for years to come. Let’s hope so but at the same time we should also remember Wales’s record at the World Cup was – played seven, won four (Namibia, Fiji, Samoa and Ireland) and lost three (South Africa, France and Australia). If we win three of our five matches in the 2012 Six Nations we should not feel we have been let down. If we win all five we should be justly delighted.

At this time last year there seemed a good chance Cardiff City would make it to the Premier League, but the team is not one of the most consistent in British football for nothing. Yet again, it managed to end up in the narrow band they have occupied for some years somewhere between 23rd and 26th best team in Britain. Unfortunately only numbers 21 and 22 get automatically promoted from the Championship.

Step forward Swansea. After periods in the lower divisions, Swansea made a rapid upward exit out of the Championship in May via the play-offs and now occupies a creditable mid-table position in the Premier League. Although seasons two and three are often more dangerous for newly promoted clubs than the first, when sheer enthusiasm can keep a team going, the real prospect has emerged of Wales having two sides in the top division in 2012-2013. That is, if Cardiff can maintain their current form and Swansea can avoid falling foul of player injuries and the exhaustion that having only a relatively small squad can sometimes lead to.

Without too much confidence this column also suggested last year that the absence in Cardiff of a Michelin-starred chef put something of a question mark over its oft-proclaimed ambition to be a leading European capital. Well the good news was that almost immediately Michelin-starred chef Martin Blunos took over at the Parc Hotel, and went on to win good reviews. The bad news is that the association ended in August. His backers, however, say they are looking to open a new restaurant at some point in the city. Fortunately, all four existing Michelin establishments elsewhere in Wales retained their stars.

So, if this represents some success and perhaps some work in progress, where have we failed to perform very well at all in 2011? Sadly, some parts of our education establishment seem this year more than ever to justify dunces’ caps. Our universities are not advancing up the league tables of top UK institutions and the turmoil in the former parent institution, the University of Wales, speaks for itself. That such a body, an expression in its origins of the strong mutual support that we believe to be at the core of our values, should have imploded in the way it has, must be a source of acute regret and embarrassment.

The hope that we might at some point secure a position higher in world rankings for at least one of our business schools has also had to be deferred. It is not even as if our business schools appear to be making the contribution they might to the sorely-pressed Welsh economy. The fees earned from students and research, salaries paid and the spending that results in local areas are all important, but the wider impact seems missing. It would be heartening to be corrected by the deans of the said business schools, but it is hard to find much evidence of their close involvement with businesses big and small from multinationals downwards in assisting their growth and continued commitment to Wales. Nor is it possible to leave education without alluding to the problems within the WJEC, the success of which in selling its services outside Wales must now have been put under considerable threat as a result of recent revelations about examination seminars.

So, many of the challenges set last year, sadly remain in place. This column had hoped that by the end of 2011 more Welsh companies would have secured a public listing. However, it is understandable that has not happened in a climate where companies have been more interested in surviving than expanding. We can be thankful that 2011 has seen fewer corporate collapses or closures than might have been the case.

It will be no modest achievement if businesses in Wales manage to survive the storms ahead in 2012 and emerge stronger as a result. There are signs, too, that re-shoring  – the return of businesses that have moved to low cost locations – is taking place, as costs, logistics and other problems in the new host countries increase. Policy in Wales needs to be alert to this and to ensure Wales is back in the forefront of efforts to secure renewed inward investment.

Last year this column also suggested it would be good for Wales to move from having a population of “nearly 3 million” to “more than 3 million” and the 2011 census is likely to confirm this when the figures start to emerge over the next year. The census is also going to highlight much else about Wales, some of which we will find comfortable and some not so cheering. We will learn whether the Welsh language has maintained its recovery and how it is faring in its heartlands. We will also learn much about the structure of Welsh society and, in particular, how our communities are ageing and coping in health and other terms with ageing. We will also find out much about the impact years of European funding have had on the west Wales and Valleys target areas and whether or not they are closing the gap on more prosperous east Wales. Politicians will need to be ready with responses to the issues thrown up in all these census findings.

There should be other things to cheer about in 2012. Let us hope for a good performance from Welsh athletes at the Olympics and Paralympics (even if the economic benefits to the Welsh economy from Olympic contracts have been less than hoped or predicted). Wales has not had a track and field gold medal since 1968 when Lynn Davies won the Long Jump. Could this be the year that long wait is ended? No pressure on you then, Dai Greene!

Rhys David is a trustee of the IWA. He writes on economic and business affairs.

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