When it comes to economic development (sustainable or otherwise) I am no longer sure that the Westminster system of Government or to be honest the National Assembly (at least with the Labour Party in charge) is capable of taking, let alone sticking to any long-term decisions, they take. I have my doubts about the current development model being considered by the Labour in Wales Government (‘pushed’ is far too dynamic a word to be associated with this inert government) in Cardiff Bay. Despite the rhetoric and the speech making I suspect that we have reached that point where there may well be no new ideas, merely recycled old ones.
|Splashing the regeneration cash - or our money in their pockets|
With the government in Cardiff bay effectively passing itself off as the old Welsh Office in drag, I would not be surprised if we see a new ‘Welsh Development Agency’ launched in the relatively near future. Following old flawed models of economic development planning for Wales (‘one egg, one basket’) just won’t wash anymore, and neither will simply waiting for a Labour victory in Westminster, which might (from a Labour in Wales perspective) start the largesse, baubles and trinkets flowing down the M4 again.
When it comes to economic development and regeneration providing the best conditions to enable our communities to grow and flourish, a sound planning policy is a key component. We should favour local small to medium sized enterprises and need to have much better thought out and far more consistent planning policies for in, out and edge of town retail developments, before our communities are damaged beyond repair.
One, but not the only, potentially key area for economic activity should be our town centres. Over the years regeneration scheme has followed regeneration scheme yet with a few exceptions we have failed to find a way of creating the right conditions for sustainable prosperity in most but not all of our towns. Regeneration has become one of those words that has no real meaning anymore. It is often perceived (and sometimes it is) as being driven from the top down i.e. by elected bodies as a process that merely consults after the plans have been drawn up rather than before, during and after - any process run this way runs the risk of becoming deeply flawed.
Our communities, towns and cities have over the years has been the recipient of much grant aid, development and redevelopment schemes and initiatives - how can we measure success? This is something that should be a key factor in the regeneration process. This is the question that needs to be asked - after the cement and the paint has dried, after the regeneration professionals have moved on (having vacuumed up significant funds to distant bank accounts) have the various schemes made a difference?
You don’t have to be a cynic to suspect that ‘regeneration’ is now a lucrative industry in itself and pretty well paid one at that. Beyond any immediate physical improvements to the locality and the local environment, do many of the regeneration schemes make a real difference when it comes to wealth generation in the area affected by the regeneration scheme? If the end result is in reality a makeover, and the targeted community is no better off, save for being bereft of the 'regeneration funds' that have been effectively siphoned off by professional regeneration companies - is this success? It may certainly go some way to explaining the discontent that was reflected in the sizeable leave vote in Ebbw Vale and other communities.
We need to think well beyond the tick box list of the regeneration schemes managers? One key component that is often ignored or marginalised is the community’s greatest resource – is ironically its people. So rather than regeneration and redevelopment professionals moving in and engaging in a token consultation process they should directly talk to local people and find out what they would like to be done, what they actually want for their communities and then doing it.
Regeneration schemes and projects should be bottom up rather than the top down. The bottom line should be when spending public money, work it extra hard and squeeze out every single possible benefit and maximise the impact locally of the regeneration process and build local benefits into the tendering process - whether by employing local people, using local resources, local skills and local input. If you are reusing or renovating old buildings then any regeneration scheme needs to ensure that old buildings can make a living after the regeneration scheme is finished. If we do this rather than merely making a token gesture towards public consultation then any regeneration schemes will, with hard work really begin to deliver tangible benefits to our communities. As had been said elsewhere, regeneration should be a process rather than an event.
Over the last forty years, we have all seen the commercial hearts of many of our communities have been seriously damaged as a result of a combination of aggressive policies pursued by the larger retail chains and exceptionally poor decision-making on the part of local government and central government indifference. The result of the abject failure or indifference of local and central government when it comes to developing realistic local economic plans leads to a failure to create a level playing field for local businesses and suppliers. This when combined with some very questionable planning decisions over the last forty years, has directly lead to many of our town centre's being "regenerated" to death.
The rise in the number of shops owned by larger retail chains damages the local economy, drains profit out of the area to remote corporate headquarters and reduces local job opportunities. Ten pound spent in a local business circulates in the local economy three times longer than if it is spent in a non-local business. A real side effect of this is a real loss of a sense of community, a loss of local character as our high streets has lost their distinctive local shops which have been replaced by “micro-format” supermarket or chain store branches and any real loss of choice for their customers.
The National Assembly Government has looked to simplify the planning process to held railroad through large developments potentially overturning logical planning decisions and local opposition. Yes, the planning system needs overhauling, but, not at the expense of fundamentally damaging democratic control of the planning process – already weakened by years of National Assembly / Welsh Office indifference to local needs. Any plans to speed up the planning process should not at the cost of creating unsustainable developments that further damage the regional economy, our high streets and our communities.
Oddly enough, poor regulation, stupidity and greed and a desire by Government’s (of most but not all political hues) to look the other way as long as things appeared (on the surface at least) to be working have all contributed to drop us all in it economically. Now here in Wales, our local authorities, certainly not the best guardian of the public interest and our environment were bluntly told, not that long aog, by a Welsh Labour Government, that they should recognise that ‘there will be occasions when the economic benefits will outweigh social and environmental considerations’.
It has been one thing to have ‘a Government of Spivs, by Spivs and for Spivs’ in Westminster, and quite another to have a government of the self-serving inert and inept in Cardiff Bay allegedly standing up for Wales. Sadly neither the Westminster nor the Cardiff Bay governments appear to have any real interest in sorting out our economic problems. The rules and regulations are now blamed for the lack of economic growth rather than it being a combination of the banking crash, the bankers recklessness and years of stupidly allowing the so called ‘free market’ to drive economic policy and economic planning and the uncertainty of the Brexit vote.