Whilst the third round of European funding will be welcome in Wales, it is disappointing, to say the least, that we should still be in a position where we qualify for such aid. We have managed, as a nation, to get through two sizeable tranches of such aid with no obvious movement towards the stated objective of closing the gap in GVA.
The first round, Objective One, seems to have been largely frittered away on a series of projects most of which looked good in themselves, but which seem to have realised little long term benefit. At the time, the impression that I had was of a large pot of money for which projects could bid, accompanied by a complex bureaucracy, within which some of the money was spent on advising others how to apply for it and then spend it. There never seemed to be any ‘big picture’ view of what the outcomes should be; it didn’t look joined up.
For the second round, the government said that it was going to be more strategic by having fewer and larger projects. I wasn’t convinced that they succeeded. The words were all there, but in some cases it looked as though having ‘fewer and larger projects’ simply amounted to giving large sums to consortia of councils which then took on the distribution to the same sort of projects as in the first phase. The difference was simply that there was an additional layer of bureaucracy between the Government and the projects being funded.
None of those involved are likely to admit any of this, of course; they were all caught up in the spin and presentation of success, the publicity which flowed to councils and ministers from a whole stream of flashy looking projects. But phase 2 looks to have been as big a failure as phase 1 in practice.
Perhaps there’s something in the character of Wales as a nation, or in our style of politics which made this inevitable, but it seemed at times that being seen to share the cash around fairly and evenly, to ensure that there were projects benefitting in each and every corner of the aided region, was more important than ensuring that the GVA objective was achieved.
Whatever the cause, as we prepare for a third round of funding, I cannot say that I feel any real optimism that any lessons have been learned. I still see no ‘grand plan’ for what we want to achieve or where we want to be at the end of the next round; and I suspect that, as a result, we’ll fall back on the tried-and- found-wanting approach of saying ‘Look, here’s a pot of money, who wants to bid for some?’, and then doling the cash out to the most telegenic proposals.
It’s not as if the Welsh Government is lacking in strategies; they’ve got several shelf-fulls of them in the Bay. It’s more that there is a complete disconnect between those box-ticking strategies and actual government action. A government which was serious about reducing the GVA gap would, by now, have a plan for doing so, and would see the inflow of large amounts of cash as being an opportunity to implement elements of that plan. I won’t hold my breath.