Friday, 26 July 2013


The news that the number of new limited companies registered in Wales has gone up by more than 20% is good news. Companies House say 469 new firms were registered with them in 2012, when compared with 386 in 2011. This increase is actually higher than the UK average but it has to be balanced by the sobering news that the number of company failures in Wales also rose when they fell on average across the UK.

A number of my friends run their own businesses, so I am fully aware of the pitfalls and the opportunities that can await anyone who goes into business for themselves. With a good idea, a sound business case, timely support and advice it can work out. Our small businesses can create wealth and sustainable employment opportunities for local people and play a significant role at the heart of our communities. Their profits and investments tend to stay within the communities where they are based.

For too many years economic development in Wales has been focused on large scale development of what can be best described a single egg solutions. They promise much in the short to medium term yet often deliver significantly less over the long term, if they survive. The latest figures show that Wales saw a 191% rise in the number of projects, by way of comparison with a 41% increase in Northern Ireland, a 16% rise in Scotland and a 10% increase in England (outside of London).

The statistics have been released by UK Trade andInvestment (UKTI), the Westminster government department responsible for exports and inward investment. There is no breakdown of the number of jobs created or safeguarded (in Wales) by these projects; the BBC says that Welsh government says they created of 2,605 jobs and safeguarded another 4,442 in the 2012/13 financial year.

Despite rise in the number of projects, Wales' share of the UK total inward investment accounts for 4%, is much lower than the high point of the 1980s and 1990s. Now this is good news, but, our focus should be on developing small to medium size local businesses, which are significantly less likely to up sticks and leave for perceived greener pastures and fresh applications of development grants.

We are still too focused on attracting large scale single enterprises, which promise much but deliver significantly less than anticipated. The LG development near Newport, is a good example of an expensive white elephant which promised the usual total of 6,000 jobs and accrued significant public funding (£376 million pounds at the last count) which was committed by the then Welsh Secretary, William Hague.

The promises and the pledges and the public funding  never quite managed to deliver anything like what was promised. While anyone with a basic  understanding of the state of the Korean and the Far Eastern economies at the time that, let alone a basic understanding of where technological developments was going in relation to PC monitor screens, would have put their hands up and said hang on a moment.

What can best be described as a combination of fantasy island economic assessments, a fatally flawed business case and the prospect of looking good with a forthcoming Westminster election looming led to one of the spectacularly duller decisions of recent years being made. The old WDA had in truth never really consistently delivered anything like long term economic stability and much needed long term job opportunities to our communities that it should have done.

The European funding opportunities available to Wales (as a result of economic mismanagement on the part of successive Westminster governments) may well turn out to have been squandered on schemes that fail to deliver measurable results yet manage to deliver fat salaries to the managers. Much of the money has been scammed into dubious schemes and training programmes that fail to deliver the necessary skills that workers and potential workers need to make a decent living in the modern economy.

Anyone who has visited Spain and Ireland prior to the self inflicted banking crash will have seen (and can see) the results of years of European regional investment the question we should be asking is where are the physical assets? By this I mean the things you can literally put your hand on like improved communications (rail, railway stations, etc), broadband infrastructure, etc?

The Westminster, Welsh Office, WDA model of concentrating on attracting branch factory operations of a relative short term duration has failed to develop and sustain our economy. Back between 2007 and 2011 the Plaid driven One Wales Government made significant efforts and tried to think and act differently when it comes to economic development and support for small to medium sized enterprises.

Small businesses should be the life blood of our urban centres, yet, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has long noted that the UK is losing around 2,000 local shops every year and that of this rate of loss is dangerously unacceptable. In a few years unless things change there will be precious few no independent retailers left in business, something that will hammer both consumers and our communities hard as they lose any real choice in the marketplace and lose potential job opportunities.

Now as someone who now and then takes the bus to work and walks through streets that were once the retail heart of Newport (nominally Wales’s third largest city) I can see with my own eyes the economic realities of our situation. Over the last twenty five years the commercial heart of many of our communities has been shattered as a result of a combination of aggressive policies pursued by the larger retail chains, exceptionally poor decision making on the part of local government and central government indifference.

This combined with the rapid growth of unsustainable, ill-thought out of and edge of town retail developments has effectively left no place for the smaller local businesses and retailers. When you factor in parking charges, business rates and the effect of the closure of high street banks and post offices in many of our communities then you can begin to see why many of our smaller businesses and local shopping centres are up against it.

Local small businesses as well as trading with us the consumers, also trade with each other - so the community gets twice the benefit. Money spent by and in local businesses spends on average three times longer in the local economy than that spent with chain stores which is instantly lost to the local economy which in times of recession our communities can ill afford. We really do need to think differently and focus economic development priorities on developing and supporting smaller local businesses who will be rooted in our communities and offer more flexible employment opportunities too our people.

The Welsh Government needs to have the power (and the vision) to remove or reduce business taxes to help boost our businesses, to encourage investment in skills, technology and  workers. If we are going to make Wales a nation of aspiring entrepreneurs and to encourage and enable them, our communities and our economy to flourish we also need to encourage the development of community owned social enterprises.

A few years ago the Rowlands review into the provision of growth capital recognised that an economical vibrant SME sector is vital for economic growth. There has been a lack of provision for companies in Wales who were looking for between £2 and £10 million pounds in capital, this has to change if we are to encourage sustainable economic growth and development.

It’s pretty clear that the present financial market and its institutions have failed to supply sufficient venture capital for the SME sector in Wales. We need a venture capital fund for Wales, which should be established by, but independent of the Welsh Government. Such an independent venture capital fund could raise capital and deliver investment through a co-investment model, with approved private sector partners to our SME sector, where such investment would make a real difference.

Despite nearly 15 years of devolution much of the same old mid to late twentieth century economic thinking lingers at the heart of the Welsh Government when it comes to economic development. There is still far too much focus on vastly expensive one egg, one basket schemes to generate the seemingly standard figure of 6,000 jobs which seems to haunt government press releases whether we are talking about the Severn Barrage, the Severnside airport , the M4 relief road or whatever.

We badly need new ideas not just talk, we need some concrete steps to encourage growth, boost manufacturing industry, support and develop  our small to medium sized enterprises. One positive step would be to end business rates and that's just to start with... otherwise it will just be a case of same old twaddle which will do nothing to help our communities and our economy.

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