City regions game changer for Wales

Ken Skates makes the case for north-east Wales to become part of a cross-border partnership

Whilst it’s true that many new policy initiatives are often accompanied by great fanfare and acclaim, some bubble away quietly under the political surface and attract less attention than perhaps they deserve. One potentially game-changing new Welsh policy has been simmering away for some time and could lead to one of the most interesting and innovative changes in economic policy since the abolition of the WDA – the creation of city regions.

Dr Elizabeth Haywood recently produced a report for the Welsh Government which recommended two such city regions be established and developed around Cardiff and Swansea Bay.  The new approach recognises that to a large extent cities and their surrounding regions drive a significant portion of a nation’s economic growth. However, in Wales cities account for just 33 per cent of our national income, a figure significantly lower than other UK nations and regions.

Essentially the report and the wider policy is an acknowledgment that our weak economic performance in terms of productivity and output is in large part down to the fact that our major urban centres are not playing a big enough role in driving forward the growth, innovation and dynamism that a powerful economy needs.

My only concern is that whilst I agree with the overall diagnosis, we risk missing out on the benefits of the prescription if we limit the scope of this policy to the major centres of Cardiff and Swansea.  In rejecting a possible city region for north-east Wales the area risks missing out on the three core benefits of having a city region:

  • Ability to create a larger labour market for the benefit of employers and business.
  • Scope to develop a larger market for the goods and services our local economy provides.
  • Potential for a greater exchange of knowledge ideas, research and innovation that can drive through the economic malaise we are in.

Of course, the blueprint of close collaborative partnership in north east Wales has already been established over many years.  Every key sector of our local economy, from aerospace to construction to car manufacturing has matured in recognition of the very porous border with England. Our local authorities understand the enormous advantages to be gained when transport, housing and infrastructure investment are joined up.

That is why our main airport hubs are Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, and our main arteries of economic activity are the A55, A483 and the M56. Many people from north east Wales work and trade in the north west of England.  It’s why the Federation of Small Business, the North Wales Economic Forum, the Creative Industries Panel and local authorities on both sides of the border all support the creation of a unique and dynamic cross border city region in north east Wales. Indeed, with the possibility that 5 per cent of the next round of EU Structural Funds will be top-sliced to encourage a pan-European City Regions approach, this agenda is even more important now than ever.

The concerns most often expressed in regard to cross border collaboration and city regions centre around the suggestion that such an approach would primarily benefit our English cousins through easier access to cheaper housing. In turn that could lead to a dilution and a weakening of our cultural identity.  However, I would say that economic stagnation is a far more corrosive threat to our language, our culture and our communities than the prospect of cross-border collaboration with our near neighbours. We cannot and should not shy away from the world. If we cannot hope to retain our identity when working in partnership with our closest relatives, how on earth can we hope to retain who we are when striving to work with different people around the globe?

City regions have the ability to reshape and transform our understanding of what devolution is about.  For me the creation of the Assembly in 1999 and its subsequent increase of powers in 2007 and 2011 were not an attempt to raise the drawbridge and develop weaker links with other nations of the UK. Rather it was an attempt in areas like north-east Wales, to enhance cooperation and collaboration in areas of mutual interest in order to make our economy more sustainable. The Chair of the City Regions report said in her introduction,

“There is a choice – each local authority, town or small city can shelter within its comfort zone and lag behind, or they can move ahead by sharing power and supporting each other to win economic projects rather than competing against one another and failing.”

I agree with these sentiments entirely. Business and commerce do not respect geographical boundaries and in the global world we live there is no room to withdraw and live in splendid isolation. That is why I am glad the Minister Edwina Hart has asked the Task and Finish Group to go back and re-examine the case for a city region or similar such model in north-east Wales.

Cross-border collaboration is a reality and we need to be bold, confident and secure in what we can gain as a city region. We have an opportunity to develop a bold and bright new future for north-east Wales and we must take it.

Ken Skates is Labour AM for Clwyd South.

12 thoughts on “City regions game changer for Wales

  1. This would appear to be the type of ‘practical and realistic’ policy that we need, however will fall foul of the nation builders who seem to think that we should deny the existance of England, and turn inwards. When I visited the eastern part of north Wales many years ago it was clear that people there had very little interest in ‘down south’, as all social/sporting contacts went east along A55 towards Liverpool and Manchester, rather than Cardiff. As we are in a ‘new politics’, why not ask the people what they want, or is that too simplistic, as they might not give the right answers, and that could never be right!

  2. Ken Skates said in the Senedd chamber that the best thing about Wrexham is that it’s close to England. Is that it? The same Ken Skates wants to build thousands of unaffordable homes on top of the existing homes that have been built in the area that are not for local need but are largely for the Chester overspill (Chester politicians having the presence of mind to protect their own greenbelt and heritage rather more than their Wrexham counterparts). This mindset, that we are an adjunct to the North West of England and therefore forever submissive to its needs, is what sees an enterprise zone set up with Welsh Govt money in Deeside Industrial Park – where 60% of the workforce comes from England. Where are the jobs? Where are the benefits? Do we want a commuter-based economy with dormitories in Wales and jobs in England?

    This is an old argument – the West Cheshire plan, the Mersey Dee Alliance – that was defeated and rejected by local people. It gets resurrected by local Labour politicians (Karen Sinclair AM made similar noises about cross-border health care in 2009, Ian Lucas MP only wants to improve rail links to Liverpool) who are keen to play the unionist card to the detriment of their own areas.

    Skates is just a retread.

    Please can we have some politicians who will have some pride in the north-east of Wales, realise it has a fantastic history, landscape and people and look to build a better future that isn’t built on being a commuter-belt for Cheshire and Liverpool.

  3. So… in essence you are asking whether we in Wales would rather thrive in partnership with English regions or wither in isolation?

    This is a no brainer… we choose to atrophy and die!

  4. You may not have noticed but we’re “in partnership” with England now, except that a partnership implies an equal relationship. It’s not doing us much good if you look at any economic indicator. Do you want Wales to be permanently considered to be a backwater, on the periphery, a sideshow or do you want it to make its own future?

  5. Do you realise how farcical your position is Stuart? There is no line on the ground. There is no barrier at the edge of Flintshire or Wrexham or Powys. People who live in Wales work in England and, to a lesser extent, the reverse is true. There is no mechanism on earth that can stop people from migrating East or West. There is no difference between people in Wales and those a few hundred yards away in England.

    But what do YOU want? Well that’s easy to see; you want separation, you want to build a barrier no matter what the cost. You want to point at economic failure in Wales and blame England…as if there are no run down economies in the North East or North Yorkshire and Humberside.
    What always bemuses me is the overwhelming desire of Nationalists to court any kind of failure, to almost wish destitution on Wales, as long as they can use that destitution to build an argument for Independence.
    There is a chance for people in the North East of Wales to forge a closer relationship with adjacent areas of England in order to increase prosperity for all concerned. Nevertheless I am sure that Welsh nationalists will spend time and energy dripping the poison of distrust and division into the ear of anyone foolish enough to listen.

  6. This is nothing other than ,the discredited,West Cheshire NE Wales sub regional strategy under a new name. The talk of mutual benefit is nonsense. It is a plan which will swamp N Wales with English commuter houses and multi national retail companies . This will further marginalise indigenous opportunities and keep local wages down but increase the cost of housing beyond the reach of locals at the same time as eroding the communities locally, as well as the Welsh identity .

  7. This isnt a “partnership”……it never has been, its a one way route of exploitation that ends with the destruction of welsh identity and culture

  8. Isn’t Dr Elisabeth Heywood the wife of Labour MP Peter Hain? Why do they have so much say in the running of our country? She was against setting up of our Assembly? She obviously still has problems understanding that Wales is not England.

  9. This article brought to mind the paper which Dr. John Davies delivered at the National Eisteddfod in 2007 (Rhanbarth Ymylol: Y Gogledd Ddwyrain yn Hanes Cymru). Dr Davies offered a long term perspective on the economic development of North East Wales which is worth bearing in mind in present circumstances.

    There is an interesting dynamic at play which is based on economic reality, but with a good measure of history thrown into the pot. Wrexham is economically part of the North West City Region, but with an historic and cultural difference, which may not be fully appreciated or acknowledged on the English side of the border.

    In this context, the idea of cross-border partnerships sounds well and good in a general sense, but such arrangements require a great deal of work and patience in reality. In the long term, it may be better to work on collaborative arrangements with neighboring organizations on specific topics, rather than taking on a broad spectrum of initiatives.

    Take transportation as an example. There has been a great deal of discussion on this site about the improvement of railway infrastructure both within the Cardiff City Region and its connections with London. Less appears to have been said, or emphasized, regarding the needs of the Wrexham area.

    I have often wondered why Wrexham is not included in the West Coast Mainline Rail Contract with provision for a regular express passenger service to London through Chester. Given that the West Coast Mainline Rail Contract is back on the table, perhaps Cardiff Bay should be puttting some of its political weight behind the notion of providing for the needs of the Wrexham area in the new call for proposals.

    Not forgetting that the railway link between Wrexham and Cardiff, together with the West Midlands and Telford through Shrewsbury, is also an important part of the overall discussion of rail on the Borderland.

  10. On the contrary Jon, what I want for Wales – regardless of whether we are independent or not – is social justice and a sustainable society. The basis for that is economic prosperity and Wales continues to languish behind England in every economic indicator.
    My objection to Skates and his scheme is not that it would promote cross-border economic interdependence, but that it seeks to socially engineer a situation that is patently not to our benefit on this side of the border (which does exist if you have any concept of history, heritage and prescription charges). The past decade has seen a huge house-building programme in N E Wales that has not been for the benefit of local communities and has put huge strain on the area’s infrastructure.
    Make the case for Wales being incorporated into England if you want but don’t dress it up as being progressive or for the betterment of Welsh communities.

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