Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Economic Renewal

I've never understood why governments can't write reports and strategies in simple clear language, and keep them brief while they're at it. Perhaps they just don't want people to read the actual documents, just listen to the spin.

The Economic Renewal document published yesterday is a case in point. The core of it – which could probably have been written in considerably less than half the number of words actually used – is a quite exciting departure from traditional economic policy in Wales. So why, oh why make it so lengthy and difficult to read? There's just so much unnecessary verbiage (and if you want a classic example, try the definition of innovation in the second column on page 30!).

I have a personal dislike of 'taking forward agendas' as a phrase; I suppose that it's intended to sound dynamic, but the phrase doesn't do it for me. And this document is full of taking things forward - agendas, actions, lessons and challenges - they're all going to be 'taken forward'.

Enough of a rant; down to the substance. I entirely welcome the shift from seeking to attract increasingly scarce footloose multi-nationals to growing and nurturing our own companies at home, as well as the shift from a grant-driven culture to an enabling approach.

It has often seemed to me that senior business people in Wales have been quick to criticise the 'dependency culture' when it applies to people receiving benefits, but demand more of it when it comes to grants to businesses. A simple market approach says that if a business isn't viable without a government handout; then it just isn't viable.

There is a 'but' of course. Wales has been using grants (to the dismay of some English regions which haven't been able to match them) to give us an edge over other areas, and it remains to be seen whether removal of that edge will damage Wales. Given that the Welsh economy has still lagged behind, despite having that advantage, I'm not convinced that it actually gave us that much of an edge in the first place.

The Welsh government has done a lot already, and is planning to do more, to roll out an advanced broadband infrastructure in Wales. They shouldn't really need to, of course, and it grieves me to see taxpayers' money going to large companies like BT which ought to be making this investment themselves. I'd personally prefer to see a much higher level of public service obligation placed upon them; but since we don't have the power to do that, and it isn't going to happen any time soon, it's better for us to spend the money and get on with it than not. It just means that that money is not then available for other projects, sadly.

The idea of trying to focus attention and support on those industries and areas where we particularly want to see development is one I welcome. It is, of course, in line with what Plaid were saying in our Economic Plan back in the late 1960s, and as far as pro-active activity is concerned, it has to be better than a scatter-gun approach. Whether they have hit the right sectors is a moot point, which I'm sure that some will argue with. I'd hope that that is something that can be reviewed over time.

The test of the strategy will come when difficult decisions have to be taken. What happens if a significant employer gets into difficulties and starts asking for handouts? What happens if a business not in one of the target sectors is seeking assistance? There's no easy answer to this sort of question, and only time will tell, but at least the government now have a framework in which to consider them.

PS. One thing slightly alarmed me in the document, although it wasn't directly related to the economic strategy as such. At the bottom of page 25, there is a reference to "the introduction of a clear and transparent fees policy for post-16 education and training". Fees for post-16 education?? A mistake, surely.

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