Coronavirus and the Resilience of Welsh Towns

Daniel Roberts says a place-based response is needed to protect Welsh towns from the economic shock of coronavirus

For anyone with an interest in the Welsh economy, bombardment by disheartening facts, figures and headlines can serve as a motivation to fight to change the way things are, or to batter us into negativity and parochialism. 

To anyone who knows how our economy functions, its strengths and its weaknesses, the news this week that Wales is set to be one of the hardest-hit economic regions of the United Kingdom can have come as no surprise. 

In analysis by Sky News, each town in the UK’s ‘risk ranking’ was produced by comparing the proportion of the population that work in industries that have been so hugely impacted by the virus and its accompanying lockdown, such as retail, tourism and the ‘self-care’ industries (like hairdressers). This, cross-referenced with other factors such as social and economic wellbeing, isolation and demographic profiles suggests that Welsh towns are particularly at risk from the damaged economic future that the consequences of the coronavirus will bring.

Across the UK, it will be coastal and post-industrial towns that suffer the most, leaving Wales in a difficult position. 43% of Welsh towns are in the tenth of UK towns deemed most at-risk economically. Of the twenty towns most at-risk, three are in the north  (listed as Colwyn Bay, ‘Pwllheli and Porthmadog’, and ‘Tywyn and Dolgellau’). The economic problems of the past and the peripheral nature of our economy already leads to feelings of resentment in these communities and those across Wales, and further economic stagnation has the potential to compound these feelings.

Welsh towns are particularly at risk from the damaged economic future that the consequences of the coronavirus will bring

In a previous article for the IWA, Gerald Holtham set out how the Welsh economy can recover financially from the significant challenges that it is to face. In it, he says: ‘We shall have to tap reserves of imagination and innovation and reserves of co-operative feeling and energy.’

This cannot be understated. When devising the economic strategy that the Welsh Government has been following over recent years, nobody can have been expecting anything like the challenges that the current crisis will bring. 

But the problems being exposed by this economic shutdown are deeply embedded in our communities, and big questions need to be asked about what we need to do to stop our towns, our valleys and our country being as vulnerable as they currently are.

Throughout this crisis, the UK Government has sought to portray itself as ‘following the science’. Alongside this, and when necessary opposing this, other parties and politicians have provided challenges drawing on international examples of best practice, academic examination and perspectives from the ground-level. 

Daily briefings across levels of government from political leaders setting out the strategy have led to intense public interest and discussion. Of course, the highly-pressurised context makes this inevitable. But nevertheless, it is this spirit of debate that seeks public co-operation that is necessary for our economic future too. 

Changing the economic structure of communities across Wales is an unenviable task. Institutional hysteresis means challenges persist across time and across generations, as the way we perceive our communities, our places and our country is formed by what we see around us. The unavoidable damage done to the places most at risk from the upcoming recession will affect the way the people most likely to solve the challenges we will face think about Wales. 

Our young people have the potential to transform the country, to make our towns more resilient, and to set us on a new path, but this has to be facilitated. 

The issue of the ‘brain drain’ is one of the most difficult debates in Wales. We need talented, highly-skilled young people to live and work here if we have any chance of boosting the Welsh economy, but there is fear and trepidation over being perceived as in any way clipping the wings of the next generation. But the reasons our young people don’t have the confidence in our country to give them the platform to succeed aren’t inevitable, and they’re not insurmountable. 

We desperately need a place-based approach to economic development with a specific focus on building resilience in these communities. And these can’t be buzzwords that the people living in these towns have never been told about, but a mission statement that is devised from the bottom-up. 

Initiatives seeking to involve young, local people in the formulation of the vision statements for their home communities have the potential, alongside the new opportunities that come with Voting at 16, to inspire and motivate our young people to take ownership of the potential of our country. A new way of thinking and constructing our own perception of Wales has never been more vital. 

As plenty of research has shown, investment in education is one of the most important precursors to successful economic development. The recent Fit for the Future: Education in Wales report highlighted the wide-ranging changes that need to be considered in order to provide the skills necessary for the future, and the same discussion needs to be had on how we harness the skills our young people do have for the betterment of Welsh communities. 

We desperately need a place-based approach to economic development with a specific focus on building resilience

At this point, it is necessary to say that the young people who do leave Wales cannot be seen as lost resources. Whether they can use the experiences and skills they develop outside of the country back in Wales or not, having a united community of the Welsh diaspora can be a huge advantage. As discussed by Sion Barry, it has the potential to produce new opportunities for investment and business development, but facilitating the inclusion of highly-skilled young people in the public sphere of Welsh policy debate is also essential in a political sense, to change the way we think about our home communities and our country as a whole. Whether a Welsh person lives in Wales or not, our political system needs them to think they have the potential to form the country’s future, and a duty to hand over a Wales to future generations that is healthier and more resilient. 

At this time of crisis, the assumptions we hold in each sector of Welsh society have come into question. And as others have noted, this is a great challenge, but also an opportunity to transform the way we think about the future of Wales. Welsh places have specific challenges, and our recent history of lagging behind other parts of the UK mean they can seem insurmountable. But empowering our young people to design the future from the ground up has the potential to halt this hysteresis in its tracks and to set us on a new economic path.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Daniel Roberts is a PhD Candidate researching entrepreneurship in Wales at Swansea University School of Management.

Also within Politics and Policy