Eight New Year targets for the worried Welsh

The New Year is a time for raising our sights rather than plunging into a kind of collective hypochondria, says Rhys David

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

There is a class of individuals to which, dear reader, you and I almost certainly belong – the Worried Welsh. Unlike our cousins, the worried well, it’s not our bowels, our cholesterol or our irregular heart rhythms we are concerned about. Instead, we scan the Western Mail for more bad news about Wales. Our Pisa ratings – Oh dear, standards in maths, English and science are slipping; our Gross Value Added –  we are getting fatter as individuals but our economy is positively anorexic; our economic activity rates stuck again below everyone else’s (reduce the diet of carrots and increase the sticks). In short we’re in danger of becoming neurotic over our performance as a nation and bamboozled about what to do.

We are depressed that the mere fact of “putting Welsh people who understand Welsh problems in charge”, in other words creating the Assembly, has not proved the magic wand we all expected. We are completely conflicted as to whether we should throw the lot of them out as hopeless under-achievers or give them additional law making and possible tax raising powers. We allow ourselves to forget that our new Parliamentary institution has come into being at probably the most challenging time for the economies of advanced Western countries since the end of the Second World War. The pre-1990 largely self-contained economies of the West created an environment in which Wales as a relatively low labour cost country could attract overseas investment and make a relatively successful transfer from dependence on coal and steel. The collapse of Communism and the opening up of China has changed all the rules, bringing into the world’s labour market literally billions of people willing to work for lower wages than the Welsh (or most other Europeans).

We all know that if we are to survive and prosper we have to adapt again and that equipping ourselves with higher level skills is the sine qua non of doing so. But instead of talking of abstractions – higher positions in this or that league table – and in the process worrying ourselves sick – perhaps we should simply set our leaders (and ourselves) some simple targets for what we believe Wales should try to achieve and secure over the next few years. This is my list but perhaps other readers of, and contributors to, ClickonWales will have other suggestions.

Top 10 UK university

Firstly, a task for our educational administrators. Newspaper after newspaper produces lists of the top universities and each one uses a slightly different set of criteria, from the quality of library services to the views of students themselves. Welsh universities make a fairly modest showing, with Cardiff the top university. Despite its Russell Group status, however, it is usually not much higher than around number 20. The other Welsh universities are spread throughout the table with our newer universities generally coming in the back half of the 100 strong listings. If universities such as York, Warwick and Bath, which have been in existence for less than half the time of the older Welsh universities, can quickly establish themselves in the top 10 then so, too, should Cardiff at least.

A top 50 world business school

Another one in education. The same is largely true of  the business schools established at most of our universities. Though individually they may be doing a good job, none is spoken of in the same breath as the world’s top international business schools, or even the leading UK schools. Cardiff does claim to have a very strong following in some parts of the developing world but this is not quite the same as being a top destination of choice for leading European, US, Japanese, or even British students who want to have a prestige business school qualification on their curricula vitae. We need at least one of our university business schools to establish itself high in the quality league, a rival at least to, say, Lancaster or Cranwell, if not Insead, ISEE or London.

Premiership football league club

Now our sports administrators. It is more than 20 years since Swansea City were in the top flight of  British football (the last Welsh club in this position) and more than 40 years since Cardiff City achieved this feat. We have had near misses in the last couple of years, including defeat for Cardiff in last year’s play-off final against Blackpool. But we have also in the intervening years plumbed the depths as well, with Newport County and Wrexham both slipping out of the Football League and Cardiff and Swansea tasting life in the fourth tier (that is, 70th best or lower among English and Welsh teams). On a strict population basis (5.5 per cent of the English and Welsh total) Wales should have about six teams in the Football League and Cardiff for its size should be a permanent fixture in the top tier. Either Newport or Wrexham, both riding high currently in the fifth tier of football, need to make the leap back into the top four echelons this year and Cardiff City, boosted by Craig Bellamy will hardly be forgiven for failing again this year to make it to the Premier League (hopefully accompanied by Swansea). Needless to say, qualification by the Welsh soccer side for either a World Cup or European Cup Finals is just as important.

Last eight place in next rugby world cup

Wales made it to third position in the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, beating England on the way and then Australia in a titanic third place play-off. Since then it would be good to think our World Cup performances had been mainly forgettable – unfortunately many are engraved on the hearts of Welsh supporters for all the wrong reasons. The Welsh rugby team needs to achieve a consistency of play that will make qualification for the last eight the minimum expectation. We should aim, too, to secure a similar top eight place, if not higher, every year in the Heineken Cup for at least one of our four teams, a competition so far  won only  by teams from Ireland, England and France.

Doubling in the number of Welsh quoted companies

The business sector needs the stimulus of a target, too. The quoted company sector has been growing every around the world but not in Wales. Fifty years ago Welsh companies with a stock exchange listing included names such as the Steel Company of Wales, Aberdare Holdings, Aberthaw Cement, Avana Bakeries, Gnome Photographic, Reardon Smith, Hodge Group, Macowards and many others. Times have changed, industry is now very different, and mergers and acquisitions have completely altered the corporate scene. However, Wales is now represented on the main London Stock Exchange by just one top 100 company, Admiral Group, and a handful of others lower down the list and on the small company exchange, Aim. Indeed, this year several companies have withdrawn from public listing and reverted to private company status. As well as seeking to support companies in selected growth sectors, Welsh industrial policy should be looking at ways to encourage more Welsh medium-sized businesses to raise funds for expansion, where appropriate through a stock exchange listing.

Doubling in the number of Michelin-starred restaurants

What about leisure? There are now some well-known Welsh chefs operating in Wales and, indeed, in London. Welsh food has long outlived the dismal reputation it once had. In fact, we now have our highest ever number of Michelin-starred restaurants, the Crown at Whitebrook being joined in 2010 by the Walnut Tree at Llanddewi Skirrid, Ynyshir Hall in Machynlleth, and Tyddyn Llan at Llandrillo. Yet, despite this and despite the growth of gastropubs, notably in Monmouthshire, Wales and fine dining are still hardly synonymous. Even Cardiff, despite its self-gazetted status as an aspiring world-class capital, lacks outstanding restaurants and cannot boast a single Michelin starred establishment. Our capital badly needs at least one and Wales in general needs far more top quality restaurants (and five star hotels) both to attract higher spending visitors and to make the most of the work that has been put into developing the quality of its food offering. Could not one of our city centre hotels in Cardiff invest in a Michelin-starred chef to run its restaurant?

International transport links

This is one we can undoubtedly all agree on and a task that calls for more concerted action than we have seen from our political class in Westminster and Cardiff Bay. While the debate now seems to have shifted as to whether or not a second generation high speed line giving London and Birmingham an additional connection should be built across the Buckinghamshire countryside, Wales still lacks a single mile of first generation electrified railway. Moreover, it looks as though we are being softened up by Ministers to accept a poor compromise when the decision (as seems likely) is taken to electrify to Bristol only. At the same time we should aspire to make 2011 the year when Cardiff airport begins to offer a range of important European business city destinations rather than the broadly holiday destinations currently on offer. Difficult, indeed, when our international business links are withering with the withdrawal of many of the multinational operations that used to populate the Welsh business scene, but essential if we are to build a competitive economy.

3 million population

Finally, here’s one to try at home, which is fun, too, particularly in the current cold weather. There have never been as many as 3 million people living in Wales though we are now close to that figure (there are more than 3 million Welsh people in total living all around the world but that is different). Indeed, taken over the course of the last century Wales has one of the lowest population growth rates of any advanced economy. Let’s make 2010 the year we finally pass that total, and let’s see Cardiganshire (which has a very low fertility rate) make a special effort. (Teenagers please do not try this one – concentrate on your studies first.)

If we can achieve just half of these targets over the course of the next few years then Wales will of its own accord become a wealthier place and perhaps more at ease with itself. We might then see some of the economic, social, educational and other problems that at present make us the Worried Welsh begin to lift on their own.

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