The Swansea Bay City Deal: A new economic narrative that everyone can get behind?

Steven Phillips says the early signs are promising for the Swansea Bay City Region

Geraint Talfan Davies recently said that a new economic narrative needed the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon. It does – and Sir Terry Matthews and the City Region Board have now provided such a narrative. It is a first major step; but we want the region and Wales to join us in shaping it further.

The Tidal Lagoon is a game changer; but it doesn’t stop there and the City Region Board has set an agenda in the City Deal document which we think all levels of government – Cardiff Bay, Westminster and Brussels – need to grab hold of to prevent us stalling in the slow lane of economic growth.

The City Deal bid is about making the whole greater than the sum of the parts – and in three key sectors. This was the main job that Economy Minister Edwina Hart gave City Regions when she set them up. The “Internet Coast” (as we have called it) is about using that medium to drive economic growth through future energy, well-being and the wider economy. It also reflects a new confidence in Swansea Bay that we have much to offer Wales, the United Kingdom and the global economy. The City Deal is how we propose to deliver.

As ever, timing is important. Both the EU referendum and the National Assembly elections are on the immediate horizon and in terms of the latter, the City Region Board hopes that our bid will contribute to the thinking of all political parties and their approach to shaping the future of the Welsh economy.

Cardiff is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe (and vital to the Welsh economy). So, Swansea Bay is not in competition with the capital region for a City Deal. Scotland has more than one and why should Wales be left behind. We also see a clear read across from our proposals to the North Wales Economic Ambition Board.

Digital infrastructure provides the capacity for moving big data and for the innovative application of the internet to growth sectors which is what we are all about. Government at all levels needs to seize the opportunity as enablers for growth; but most of all we need to do it ourselves. Why?

It’s simple. This is where jobs and prosperity will be created and communities sustained in the 21st century. It is also how public services will increasingly be delivered – my own Council only this week launched of our new digital strategy with this objective. This demonstrates the depth and breadth of digital networks, how they touch all our lives and how they shape them. Digital exclusion is not an option. We need to get people who think that it is not for them to realise that it is – at home, at work and at leisure. In most developed countries it is estimated that some 10% of youngsters leave school not equipped with the digital skills they need and a similar proportion of the older population risk exclusion from the benefits that 21st century technology undoubtedly brings. This only promotes poverty, and social exclusion as well as undermining the sustainability of our communities.

The City Deal is about many things including re-shaping our regional capital, ‘traditional’ connectivity in the form of transport and making the regional economy more diverse and resilient so we are better placed to sustain manufacturing industry as well as moving into new sectors. But above else, it is about the digitalisation of our economy and our communities.

Sir Terry reminds us that this is a revolution that has barely started. It is estimated that some 80-90% of the content of the internet has been put there in the last 2-3 years. Accordingly the gradient of the growth curve is very steep. It is essential that we are equipped with the skills to innovate, compete and drive productivity whilst playing to the strengths of our region. This is a bottom up approach with the objective of ensuring that Swansea Bay has digital in its DNA for the 21st century.

To achieve our objectives we need to be outward facing and receptive to ideas and collaborative opportunities that can be drawn from well beyond the region and Wales. The City Deal team has started this process by visiting Brussels this week where the underpinning narrative contained in the bid document found strong echoes. The City Region Board, under Sir Terry’s leadership, believes that we have identified a way ahead that is both ambitious and deliverable. It will take time to deliver; but the early signs are promising.

Steven Phillips is the Secretary to the Swansea Bay City Region Board and the Chief Executive of Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council.

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