A Wales that works for you

Kirsty Williams says Wales is being denied the opportunity to flourish.

Wales is not working. Our economy is dramatically lagging behind the rest of the UK, we have the least productive economy and the highest child poverty levels outside London.

The Assembly election 2016

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Yet Labour, like the pub bore, continue to lecture people about the past while refusing to live in the present. The honest truth is modern Wales faces long term structural issues that are not easy to fix. But there are steps the next Welsh Assembly could put in place immediately to start tackling those structural issues.

For most people the days of getting one permanent job and keeping it for the rest of your life are long gone. Many of us will work in several different places through our working life, with different types of employment contracts.

Our next government needs to invest in ‘up-skilling’ people looking for work and those currently in work or who are self-employed. Alongside doubling the number of apprenticeships, the Welsh Liberal Democrats will ensure access to vocational courses for people in work to give them additional or to develop skills.

Wales needs an exciting job market, a vibrant Welsh economy based on opportunity. Yet it is clear we are nowhere near that. Indeed, the latest figures show that not only is Wales at the bottom of the UK pay table but that Wales is the only part of the UK where earnings for full-time workers have fallen. What is wrong with our nation that we are the only place where this is happening?

I believe one answer lies in this simple fact: Wales now has the longest surviving government in Europe, the same party since the dawn of devolution – that’s not a healthy position to be in.

Stagnation stifles innovation.

Wales should be the place where small businesses and innovators thrive. A small nation that rewards those with big ideas. The place where ambition and aspiration are rewarded. Labour treat ‘aspiration’ as if it’s a dirty word. It is not. People should aspire – and governments should encourage them so to do.

The solution is not just about skills and aspiration. There is a third aspect to building an environment where business can flourish and that is the infrastructure.

While Labour obsess about the M4 relief road that would not benefit all of Wales but would cost £1bn of borrowed money, when the Welsh Government’s total budget is only £15bn, the Welsh Liberal Democrats look to the needs of Wales now and in the future – we want to create a transport, digital and social infrastructure fit for the modern world.

To change the fate of the Welsh economy, Welsh Liberal Democrats will set up a Welsh Development Bank with three aims: to bring together finance and support for small businesses seeking to grow; to develop export markets for Welsh businesses; to draw in funding for major infrastructure projects.

In addition, we know there is a basic hurdle that Britain, not just Wales, needs to get over; one that the Tory Government in London has consistently failed to resolve and one that BT needs to be held to account for – ‘connectivity’.

The importance of digital connectivity in everyone’s lives cannot be overstated. Much of Wales remains left behind cities like Manchester and London in terms of connectivity and access to mobile digital services. They don’t have high speed broadband. Some places don’t even have a mobile signal.

The problem of connectivity is a particular barrier to Welsh businesses being successful and standing alongside their international competitors. I can’t help but think about the talent in Wales that is being denied the opportunity to flourish.

Bridging this digital divide is a top priority for the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

The current snail’s pace of delivery will not be tolerated by the Welsh Liberal Democrats and, if we are in government, we will hold tough negotiations with BT Openreach. We will also work with businesses, OFCOM, infrastructure owners and network operators to improve mobile coverage and digital inclusion across Wales.

The impact of new technology, of digital developments, is all encompassing – disruptive – a revolution on a greater scale than that of the Industrial Revolution. We do not know how it will end, but we know it is happening at break-neck speed. This revolution has changed every aspect of our lives. From shopping or paying bills, to watching films or learning new skills.

The digital revolution will result in future tests to our democracy, changes to the way we educate our children and changes to the skills businesses will need in the near future. Of course our challenge includes anticipating the skills and competencies required of the workforce of the future, which means getting education and training right – today.

With the growth in the numbers of people being self-employed and the growth in micro-businesses, now, more than even it is vital that we fund world-class digital skills training. For larger businesses that barrier could be reduced if the lack of digital skills of prospective workers is tackled, here in Wales.

Everything to do with the digital revolution seems to focus on London. Yet innovation hubs are spread across the UK. In Cardiff, we have a world class Life Sciences Hub that aims to increase the sector’s contribution to the Welsh economy by more than £1 billion by 2022.

If Welsh Liberal Democrats are elected, we will ensure that the next Welsh government throws down the gauntlet to those obsessed with Tech City in London. Yes, I get it that Hoxton is ‘cool’, a short taxi-ride away from the boys in Mayfair who are Fund hotshots and do lunch at the Ivy. But I want Wales to win this revolution. For I want everyone in Wales to have the opportunity to prosper. I want nothing short of a Wales that works for you.

Kirsty Williams is the Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

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