Earlier this month, I was invited to a conference exploring the importance of Cardiff to the Welsh economy. Entitled ‘Serving Wales – Building a Capital and Prosperous Wales’ and organised by the Cardiff Business Partnership, the event included contributions from the First Minister and David Stevens, chief executive officer of Admiral PLC.
It was a timely conference, coming a week and a half before the announcement of the Welsh Government’s strategy for the next five years, a strategy dubbed as a roadmap for the Welsh economy by Carwyn Jones but as "meaningless" and too vague by Opposition leaders.
Certainly, there is little, beyond the Welsh Jobs Fund that employers can point to as being of any direct impact from the five year plan, and that will only create 4,000 six month long placements for young people rather than any meaningful long term employment.
Perhaps the main problem with the Government’s plan is that it lacks a clear vision for what can be done with the Welsh economy.
This was a point made by the CBI’s Rudi Plaut at the Cardiff conference, when he suggested that whilst various initiatives were worthy in themselves, they would not turn around the Welsh economy overnight. Instead, what was needed was some major infrastructure projects that would have a real impact and create tens of thousands of jobs.
With plans moving ahead quickly for a second nuclear power plant for Anglesey, it would seem that North Wales has its big hitting project.
But what about South Wales?
The Severn Barrage seems, for now, to have been put on hold for the foreseeable future but is there another major project which could make a real difference?
Exactly five years, I described the potential development of a new major international airport to the east of Newport that would serve the whole of the Wales and West England region.
Certainly, the evidence at the time was compelling – a previous white paper on the future of air transport had stated that by the year 2020, the number of passengers per annum in the UK would rise from 180 million to 501 million, despite the increasing worries about climate change.
Not surprisingly, any plans to cope with this increased traffic has focused solely on what can be done around the London complex of airports. Witness the plans to build a new runway at Heathrow and Boris Johnson’s call, earlier this year, a new international hub airport to be built in the South East of England.
Yet, apart from the fact that such an infrastructure project is not needed to boost employment within one of the more prosperous parts of the UK, there are concerns that increased concentration around London will increase air misses and have a considerable impact on the environment.
Yet as I noted back in 2006, a proposed Wales and West International Airport (WWIA) could cater for a catchment area of up to 30 million passengers per annum. Indeed, there would be little reason for individuals who live or have business in the Wales and West England region, and who require intercontinental facilities, to use one of the London airports and, in doing so, travel an average surface travel distance of 130 miles.
With the WWIA, this would be reduced to an average of 40 miles, thus creating an attractive option for many passengers. More importantly, with the M4 and the newly electrified Swansea-London railway line adjacent to the proposed airport, links into the UK road and rail network would be quick and easy.
The benefits for the South Wales economy could be enormous, especially for the Gwent Valleys region which is the second poorest area in the UK - it is estimated that a new airport could create up to 45,000 direct job opportunities and generate at least £1.25 billion for the local economy.
It would also, as far as an airport can do, minimise the environmental impact of the growing air traffic over the next decade. For example, transferring Trans-Atlantic flights from London to the WWIA would save an estimated 6 million tonnes of air fuel every year.
In terms of construction, the landside operation of the WWIA could be built on brownfield land and no part of the sites of special scientific interest in the Severn estuary would be affected by the development. The airside operation would consist of an offshore runway in the Severn estuary and therefore no person would live under the flightpath or within the noise impact footprint.
Therefore, the proposal to develop a new modern green airport equivalent to that of Manchester or Gatwick for Wales seems very compelling, especially as it would bring all the economic benefits that the Mayor of London is so keen to retain for his city.
Five years ago, I urged the Welsh Government to have the courage and the vision to put together a feasibility study and present it to the UK Government for consideration.
Now that we have gone through the worst recession in living memory, I would urge the First Minister to revisit this idea and address any unanswered questions about this development.
At the very least, it could assess the potential impact of a major infrastructure project that could become a magnet for international travellers, directly cut unemployment in Wales by over a third and finally get the economy moving.