Tuesday, July 17, 2012
NORTH WALES AND CITY-REGIONS
Essentially, city regions are exactly what they say on the tin – they are those areas surrounding a major urban location that, as academic research has shown, are major drivers of economic growth and employment.
Normally, they consist of areas that collectively have a minimum population of 500,000 residents, thus creating the critical mass needed for economic growth and enables policies on issues such as transportation to be effectively utilised towards maximising the potential of the city region. Given Wales’ demographics and geography, it is not surprising that the Task Force recommended that only two city regions should be created.
The first, with a population of 1.4 million would be in South East Wales and centred on Cardiff and taking in Newport, Bridgend and the Valleys. The second, to be known as Swansea Bay and with almost 700,000 residents, would consist of Swansea, Neath, Port Talbot, Llanelli and Carmarthen. In my opinion, such developments are long overdue and if this signals the beginning of the end of tribalism and parochialism within our industrialised areas, then it can only be good for the Welsh economy as a whole.
But what implications will this have for North Wales? The task force was also asked to look at whether there was scope for a city-region based on Wrexham and Flintshire, especially given the importance of manufacturing within the region through companies such as Airbus and Toyota and the recent announcement of an enterprise zone on Deeside.
Unfortunately, it recommended that even if this city-region was extended across the border into Cheshire, it did not have the necessary population to guarantee success. Instead, it suggested that the Mersey Dee Alliance, which has been critical in building cross-border links, should become a regional strategic body with powers for economic development, although this would mean that the Welsh and UK Governments should consider giving this body the additional powers to enable it to undertake successful interventions in the local economy.
I am sure that many in North Wales will be disappointed that, yet again, the impression given is that the focus of the Welsh Government has been on South Wales and that the task force did not consider, even within its specific remit, ways in which the rest of Wales, especially the rural areas, could benefit from having a more joined up approach to economic development.
Perhaps that is something for the Welsh Government to consider in the future because, as we have seen recently with the furore over milk prices, there remains a fragility within many parts of the rural economy that needs to be addressed urgently. However, I am heartened by the fact that the North Wales Economic Forum is already ahead of the game when it comes to collaboration on economic matters between public bodies.
Only last month, it announced the creation of the Economic Ambition Board, a partnership between the six local authorities that has the aim of attracting inward investment and boosting job growth across the region. It may not have the title of a city region but this development certainly has the potential to make as much of a difference if real collaboration can take place between the councils involved.
I would hope that the Welsh Government considers carefully the level of resources it will direct, from its own coffers and European funding towards the two city regions in South Wales. At the very least, North Wales politicians and policymakers will need to make a strong case that the region gets an equitable amount towards its own economic plans for the future.