Saturday, 11 December 2010

What is the solution to Wales's economic woes?

This week we once again saw Wales fall further behind the rest of the UK in terms of GVA.

For several years there has been general debate about how far Wales is behind the rest of the UK as several of the most commonly used measures of economic success do not take into account factors such as the lower cost of living in Wales as compared to the rest of UK.

The latest figures leave us in no doubt however that our economic performance is deteriorating.

Despite this the Welsh Assembly Government's budget made huge cuts to economic development. What is worse the Conservative opposition (who I always thought were a pro business Party) would have made even deeper cuts in their alternative budget.

If we want Wales to begin to close the gap we have to think big and think long term.

Cutting spending on infrastructure such as roads, rail & broadband may save money now but will leave us in a far worse position in years to come. These are they key arteries which allow Wales to trade with the rest of the UK. Failure will lead to businesses relocating to areas where the economy is taken seriously.

But we also want to trade with the World and to do this we need an airport in South Wales close to the M4 which has regular flights to key world destinations. This is a huge project and would cost billions of pounds but it is something we should be aspiring to. Cardiff International is in the wrong place and is frankly amateur. If we decide to keep it, at the very least it needs to have proper transport links (trains every 30 minutes to Cardiff and Swansea and decent access roads) and a car hire desk which stay open past 9pm!

If the Welsh Economy begins to recover many of the other problems facing Wales will begin to reduce, but it is bottom of WAG's list of priorities. Why?

One of the primary factors is that any upside in the Welsh Economy will have little impact of the Assembly. This weeks horrific economic data passed by with barely a mention in the Welsh Media and any improvement would probably get similar coverage. The real benefits of higher taxation revenue and lower benefit costs would instead be enjoyed by the Chancellor in Westminster.

This is a fundamental flaw in the current devolution settlement, and the referendum next year will not make things any better.

Businesses in Wales are already over burdened with paperwork and legislation and an additional layer of legislature could actually be a step back. If the Welsh Assembly was more responsible for raising it own income (rather than whining about the size of the hand out from England) the economy would certainly be higher up their list of priorities.

What is more important the Assembly would be in a far stronger position to make a genuine impact on the Welsh Economy if they had the power to cut taxes for Welsh businesses.

The Holtham Commission has already made the case for such a system and whist it would surely lead to short term pain for many area of Wales it is the only way that we will be able to get economic development back up WAG's political agenda and bring a end to the current economic slide.

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