Boris Johnson is Build, Build, Building No Hope in Wales
The Prime Minister has made a miscalculation in his plans for an economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis which is entirely focused on England, writes Gareth Roberts
The former industrial areas of Shotton, Deeside and Wrexham are not advertised by the Welsh Tourist Board. They are the scarred remains of decades of industrial decay, home to the towns where the high streets comprise boarded-up shops, discount stores and charity outlets selling the stuff that no one wants. They are the communities that worry about the viability of schools and doctors surgeries and the ongoing, usually futile, struggle to keep hold of the best and brightest.
The Steel Works at Shotton and the coal mining pits in Wrexham have long gone and, for the past two decades, the principal provider of economic sustenance in north-east Wales has been the huge cubed factories at Broughton that house Airbus.
Although manufacturing has been conducted on the site of the Airbus factory in Broughton since the Second World War, with the help of the EU, the past two decades have seen it grow to become the second largest private sector provider of employment in Wales – with 6,500 jobs at the plant. Thousands more are directly dependent upon it via the supply chain and many more for the income it generates in the area. Its role in helping to maintain the economic and social viability of many small communities cannot be overstated.
Which is why the announcement this week that it will be making 1,700 people redundant is a devastating blow for the entire economy of north-east Wales.
For the local people, having been kicked hard in the teeth when the steelworks and coal mines shut in the 1980s, they are now being kicked once again. They know full well the destabilising impact that sudden large-scale unemployment has on every aspect of community life – from schools to crime rates and the provision of social services. They know that areas can become forgotten, left to decay and rot, to gain notoriety and become the type of places people want to leave.
One 21-year-old told me he was being laid off after spending three years completing his apprenticeship in engineering. “I’ll never get a job like that again, the only choice for me now is to leave the area,” he said.
He won’t be the only one.
These areas need investment. They need jobs. They need people with money to spend in pubs, restaurants and shops, who can employ local service providers and send their children to the local schools.
The Welsh Government has tried to provide the necessary life support, with the Minister for North Wales unveiling various infrastructure projects such as road-building and school maintenance. But, after a decade of austerity in which the Welsh Government has seen its spending per person fall by 5%, it has inevitably found itself in a desperate exercise of fire-fighting, doing as much as it can with limited and diminishing resources.
On the same day that Airbus made its gloomy announcement, the Prime Minister sat proudly on a bulldozer and proclaimed that the Government would ‘build, build, build’ in an attempt to alleviate the economic impact of the Coronavirus crisis. He boasted that his plans were the equivalent of President Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ during America’s Great Depression and that there would be a huge boost with the construction of new roads, hospitals, schools and other infrastructure across the country. Wales waited with baited breath to see what was going to be built on this side of Offa’s Dyke.
Sadly, Boris Johnson’s ‘new deal’ made clear that there would be no restructuring of the Barnett Formula that determines the amount of money that Wales and Scotland are given from Westminster. This means that any new spending on schools, hospitals, roads and ‘shovel ready’ projects are limited entirely to England.
There will be no ‘build, build, build,’ in Wales. Wales will not get a single penny of new investment.
The people of north-east Wales now face a future of looming economic and social disaster. With unemployment rates in Alyn and Deeside, Wrexham and Flintshire having already doubled since the Coronavirus outbreak, the news that the most significant source of employment in the region is laying off thousands of workers is a hammer blow.
Regions such as north-east Wales need more than slogans, rhetoric and photo opportunities designed to give the impression of action. They need careful and targeted investment and competent and sympathetic politicians – who understand and care about the fact that, if the main source of employment for an entire region is taken away, then the devastation can last for a generation or more.
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