71 speeches by……and 8 more speakers
So, we move on to the first item on the agenda, which is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure. And the first question is from Rhianon Passmore.
1. Will the Cabinet Secretary outline what actions the Welsh Government is taking to develop tourism in Islwyn to aid economic regeneration? OAQ(5)0199(EI)
Yes. Our tourism strategy sets out our principles and priorities to support the industry across Wales. This includes marketing campaigns in the UK and overseas, it includes capital development funding for new and existing tourism businesses, and it also includes revenue funding for regional projects.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. The Valleys taskforce has expressed its desire to use the wonderful natural landscape of Wales to promote our economy. In Islwyn, we have the wondrous Cwmcarn forest scenic drive, which we need reopened. We have the historic grade II Navigation colliery, with its grade II listed buildings. Cabinet Secretary, what can the Welsh Government do to showcase the great Valleys to the world and, as a consequence, revitalise our economy?
Well, can I thank the Member for her further question, and also thank her for the keen interest she’s shown in the visitor economy? The Valleys could benefit considerably from the growth in tourists to Wales in recent years. The thematic years, I think, have been particularly beneficial, being focused on the great outdoors, building on the primary purpose that people come to Wales for holidays for, which is to experience adventure, the great outdoors, outdoor discoveries. And I’m hoping that, in the years to come, communities in my colleague’s constituency will benefit further from our initiatives. In terms of the specific projects that the Member highlights, I do believe that the Crumlin Navigation colliery is probably the finest surviving group of former colliery buildings in Wales, and it’s been supported with financial resource from the Welsh Government to undertake reclamation works. It’s my hope that we will see further improvements there in the years to come. In terms of the Cwmcarn forest drive, this is something that I know was incredibly popular when it was in operation. Perhaps we could look to the Year of Discovery in 2019 as a way, and as an opportunity, to reopen that drive. I think it would be fantastic to see it reopened. I do recognise the challenges—financial challenges—facing Natural Resources Wales, but we are looking for major events, new and innovative activities, which can be launched in 2019, and perhaps I could meet with the Member to run through the opportunities for that particular project and more widely in her constituency.
Cabinet Secretary, earlier this month, the director of the Welsh Centre for Tourism Research at Cardiff Metropolitan University said that Wales is not reaching its full potential in attracting high-spending international tourists. She pointed out that Wales was not doing as well internationally as our competitors, getting about 3 per cent of visitors and 2 per cent of spend. Given the importance of tourism to the Welsh economy, what action does the Cabinet Secretary intend to take to increase the number of international tourists coming to Islwyn, and Wales altogether? Thank you.
Yes, I appreciate the points made by the Member. The challenge of getting international visitors out of London is one that faces all regions outside of London. Wales is not unique in that regard. But we have redoubled our efforts to attract visitors to Wales, and the results, I think, are quite impressive, in terms of all types of visits. We saw an increase of 15 per cent last year on the previous year. In terms of day visits, we’ve seen numbers increase to above 103 million last year, and, in terms of international visitors, trips were up last year by 10.8 per cent compared with the year before. In terms of spend, which is really what matters to businesses in the visitor economy, the sums that were spent increased by more than 8 per cent. It is now a fact that, when visitors come to Wales on day trips, they now spend more per head than is the UK average. But we don’t want to rest there—we want to continue to attract more international visitors to Wales and that’s why we’re increasing our marketing activities, making sure that we attend more travel expos abroad, bringing in more tourism experts and travel writers on familiarity trips, to get more people interested in the incredible offer that we have in our country.
2. Will the Cabinet Secretary outline the Welsh Government's plans to promote economic development in west Wales during the fifth Assembly? OAQ(5)0201(EI)
Thank you. Yes, we are developing a strategic approach to economic development based on prosperity for all, enabling all parts of Wales to benefit from economic growth and the opportunity to secure greater degrees of job creation.
Thank you for that, Cabinet Secretary. As you will know, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park covers vast swathes of my constituency, and the decisions taken by them can have major impacts on businesses operating either wholly within the park or partly park and partly the rest of Pembrokeshire. Whilst I understand the need for consideration to be offered to the park’s overriding principles, it is vital for economic development in west Wales that businesses can grow and mature. Can you outline what support your department, along with the department of the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs, can offer to businesses to ensure that decisions taken by the national parks are taken in the timeliest manner so as to minimise the economic impact on businesses operating in the area? Otherwise, I fear that a number of businesses will be driven from west Wales.
I’d agree with the Member that our national parks do need to work in partnership with the businesses that are located within them. We do see, in many parts of Wales, very proactive national parks working effectively and very efficiently with businesses in the spirit of partnership. With regard to the national park in Pembrokeshire, I think there has been a concerted effort by the park to take advantage of the Year of Legends and the forthcoming Year of the Sea, working in partnership with the local authority and crucially with businesses. The Member is absolutely right that the park must be proactive in reaching out to businesses and in assisting businesses to—I was going to say, ‘exploit’—take advantage and work with the park to draw more visitors in and to make sure that visitors stay for longer. There are some phenomenal attractions on the Pembrokeshire coast. That’s why I go there every summer for my personal and private holiday with my family. It’s an amazing place, but we’d like to translate more day visits and weekend visits into week-long visits, and you can only do that by having a partnership approach that brings together all businesses and brings together those providers of attractions and events.
Thank you, Llywydd. The Cabinet Secretary will be aware that publishing books is very important in the west of Wales, and I declare an interest, as is in the register of interests, as my wife and my niece work in this area. So, I’d like to ask him about publishing but starting by paying tribute, if I may, to Tony Bianchi, a gentleman who passed away some three weeks ago, who was from Newcastle, who learnt Welsh and became an eminent Welsh writer and promoted Welsh writing and publishing in Wales and professionalised the art too. In that context, we have the Professor Medwin Hughes report, which has created something of a headache, from time to time, for the Cabinet Secretary over the past few weeks. I would like to thank him for the way he’s responded to the report and the way he’s brought everyone together to agree a way forward. Can I ask him specifically whether he will ensure that, as we are in a situation where the people who are seen to be criticised in the report are raising their voices, he will also listen to those people who are frankly less vocal but do want to work with him and everyone in the area to secure a prosperous future for publishing in Wales?
Can I thank Simon Thomas for his question? Simon makes an important point that we should all behave responsibly and fairly when we respond to a report of this nature. Can I also pay tribute to Tony Bianchi and the incredible work that he produced and also his commitment to Welsh literature? His passing is very much missed, I’m sure, not just in my colleague’s constituency and region, but right across the country and beyond given the reach that his work had. I think, in terms of publishing, the report was designed and is designed to strengthen literature and publishing in Wales. Now that it has been produced, I think it’s important that all interested bodies work together to ensure that all interested bodies become strengthened in their respective areas, and deliver better what they have been delivering well to date. The arts council, the Welsh Books Council and Literature Wales—they all have delivered magnificent events, services and activities, and do an incredible amount to promote publishing. I want to make sure that these bodies go on strengthening and flourishing in the future.
I call on the party spokespeople to ask their questions of the Cabinet Secretary. Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Adam Price.
Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, in November last year, you told the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee that the First Minister had said that he expects the economic strategy to be with him by the spring of 2017. Earlier this year, you said in Plenary that you had to wait until the UK’s industrial strategy had been published in January. On 8 February, a Government amendment to a debate on the economy noted: ‘the Welsh Government’s plan to publish a cross-cutting strategy to support economic growth later in the spring.’ The First Minister, on 16 May, in response to a question by David Rees, said, ‘We intend to publish our strategic approach to building prosperity for all before the summer recess.’ And, finally, just a couple of weeks ago, Cabinet Secretary, on 3 July, at the external affairs committee, you said you would publish this strategy in this term. Cabinet Secretary, this is the last day of term: where’s the strategy?
I’m pleased to be able to inform the Member that the cross-cutting strategy ‘prosperity for all’ was approved by Cabinet this week. It has been completed. It will be published early in the autumn on return of this Assembly, and, over the summer, we will be engaging in an extensive—[Interruption.]—in an extensive stakeholder engagement programme to further refine the work, based in action, after the strategy has been published.
For the record, Members are asking which autumn of which year we're talking about. So, maybe the Cabinet Secretary might want to put that on the record. Now, maybe one of the reasons for it being delayed was because you had to rewrite it following the fall-out of your decision over the Circuit of Wales. Now, on 27 June, Cabinet Secretary, you told the Assembly that you could not have a definitive answer from the Office for National Statistics on the balance sheet issue until after contracts were signed. There was a risk that, many months down the line, you could find yourself with a project on the balance sheet with all the implications that would have. You’ve now admitted to me in a written answer that there was an alternative: you could have asked for a provisional ruling from ONS. Why didn’t you?
Can I first of all thank the Member for his good humour, this being the last opportunity that he will have in this current term to question me? Can I also thank him for the 12 months that we’ve had of grilling and probing and having me on the rack, during which time we have disagreed on a number of occasions, but I hope we have been able to agree on a number of subjects as well? I recognise the Member’s deep belief in the Circuit of Wales project, and I also recognise his disappointment that we were unable to support it. It would have been wholly irresponsible to have taken it forward on the basis of risk that was presented. And, in terms of the point that the Member makes, provisional advice on potential developments can be sought from the ONS, but that should only be when contractual documentation is in a near final form and following a decision in principle to offer Government support.
Well, Cabinet Secretary, your Government did ask for a provisional ruling from ONS when you made a decision in principle on your own Government’s mutual investment model in October 2016. Furthermore, isn’t it true, Cabinet Secretary, that ONS has also got provision for policy proposals that are not at a near final stage? Their classification guidelines, which you yourself referenced in your answer to me, say this: ‘government departments might seek a view on a proposal at an early stage of development. In such cases, ONS will provide provisional advice on the expected classification of the proposal, based on information available at the time.’ So, my question to you is this: did you seek, and were you given, provisional advice on the expected classification of the Circuit of Wales proposal from ONS? And let’s be clear: what I’m asking you is not whether you spoke to them and then formed your own view based on what they said, but did you ask them for their provisional advice in the terms set out in their guidelines? And as the Cabinet Secretary invites me to end the scrutiny on a more positive note, can I ask him this one last thing? If, out of the rubble, the Circuit of Wales project was rescued by the local authorities in the city region—with the prospect now, of course, of Formula 1 being a possibility as well—and the Welsh Government were asked not for their money, but for their blessing, would you welcome the project being salvaged in this way?
Can I thank the Member for his further questions? Of course, the one big question that we’re still awaiting an answer for is whether he agrees with our decision that was taken last month, and unfortunately there is no agreement, which I’m sure indicates that the Member would have been content to have signed off the project, only to have returned here, in all likelihood in six months’ time, to tell the Chamber that he was having to put on ice more than £300 million of capital programmes, which, as I’ve said in this Chamber before, would amount to 5,000 affordable homes or 10 schools or one superhospital. I don’t just call that irresponsible; I call that reckless in the extreme. [Interruption.] I hear the leader of UKIP—we’re entering the pantomime audition season—entering the fray from the side, but the point is that he too would have signed off this project in a demonstration of huge irresponsibility. The fact is that we took responsible action on what was a controversial subject, which did fire up passions and beliefs in the Valleys, but we are now moving on with a clear vision for the Heads of the Valleys and we will deliver. The people of Ebbw Vale, Blaenau Gwent and the Heads of the Valleys have waited long enough. We are here to deliver and we will do just that.
You didn’t answer the question.
Conservative spokesperson, Russell George.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Cabinet Secretary, infrastructure projects have too often been delayed by short-term political considerations, and this has often led to spiralling costs and the cancellation of projects altogether. In addition, where high levels of uncertainty hang above infrastructure schemes, potentially, private sector investors are often deterred from providing financial backing for these kinds of projects. When infrastructure is planned and delivered within the context of a secure, credible and long-term view, these projects often secure a greater level of private sector interest and investment. So, can I ask you, perhaps in the light of recent events as well, to reconsider putting the national infrastructure commission on a statutory footing? I would also suggest that it will be a missed opportunity for you not to do that. I think what the Government needs to do is to demonstrate a genuine commitment to creating a stable and long-term approach to infrastructure development in Wales.
Can I thank the Member for his question and also for the work that he led in assessing the establishment of the national infrastructure commission of Wales? Of course, we already utilise innovative forms of funding. We are doing that with the dualling of the A465, and we will continue to do so. The work that’s taking place on the infrastructure commission is taking place at speed. We are now looking at the appointments of the chair and the members of that commission in the early autumn, and as I’ve said on previous occasions, we will review the operations of the commission before the end of this Assembly term. I have given my undertaking to do that. As of yet, we have received no compelling evidence for putting it on a statutory footing. However, we will be reviewing the effectiveness and the delivery of the commission by the end of this Assembly.
Well, I would put it to you, Cabinet Secretary, that we do need a more long-term and stable approach in Wales—more than ever before. Over the last number of years, the Welsh Government has presided over a number of significant major project failures, I’m afraid to say. That has created confusion and uncertainty for potential private sector investors, and the failure and the process with regard to the Circuit of Wales—as Adam Price has mentioned earlier—is one example where we see, potentially, a reduced confidence amongst investors that Wales is indeed open for business. Do you, Cabinet Secretary, acknowledge that the creation of the infrastructure commission should be followed up by the introduction of legislation to equip the commission with the extra weight and clout it needs to do its work?
As I’ve said, we will be assessing the effectiveness of the commission by the end of this Assembly term. We will be establishing it by the end of this year. I must disagree with the assertion made by the Member that Wales may appear not to be open for business given the latest results for inward investment, which show, I believe, that it was the third most successful year. Indeed, investment from within the UK into Wales reached a record high. We are continuing with our efforts to bring in major projects. Just last week we were able to announce the investment by Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles—a huge investment that will bring monumental change to Newport and the economy of south-east Wales, creating 300 jobs, but also, crucially, offering enormous potential for expansion. That’s something that we will build upon. Since May of this year, we have announced, through our support, the creation of more than 500 jobs in this current year, and we are also working to establish many more jobs across—and that’s just in Wales in this past eight weeks. But we are also working with a pipeline of interests at the moment to create further employment opportunities in the months to come.
And finally, Cabinet Secretary, if I could perhaps pursue an issue that Adam Price raised in his first question, there’s still some confusion for me in this regard, certainly when it comes to your publishing of ‘prosperous and secure’ and your economic strategy. I’m aware that you did tell the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee that you’d publish it this term; I’m aware that last week, in the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee, you said it would be the autumn; however, in the Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister on Friday of this week, I asked the First Minister and put it to him, and he said that ‘prosperous and secure’ would be published this term. So, I have to say I am a little bit confused. So, reflecting on what the Presiding Officer said at the beginning of proceedings today, who is right? Is it yourself or the First Minister?
I can assure the Member—I can assure the Member because we were all there at Cabinet—that ‘prosperity for all’ was approved, was signed off by all members of the Cabinet on Tuesday, and will be published as soon as we return.
UKIP spokesperson, David Rowlands.
Diolch, Llywydd. I’m not sure whether the Cabinet Secretary recalls it, but as long ago as yesterday I questioned you on the availability of funding, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises in the research and development sector. In evidence to the EIS committee last week, you indicated that the development bank of Wales would be moving away from direct grants to repayable loans. Do you not think that this would present a particular obstacle to such companies, as these may not see the financial benefits of their research for many years?
Well, there is a need to balance direct support in the form of grants with repayable loans, because repayable loans offer an evergreen approach that can recycle investments into other businesses, but I do take the point that the Member raises, which is that a repayable loan is not the answer and not the best means of supporting all businesses. For that reason we will maintain other forms of direct support, be it grants or indeed advice through Business Wales and the development bank itself.
Well, forgive me if I show some continuing frustration, Cabinet Secretary, but I have personal involvement with a constituent who is seeking funding for what seems to be a project that fits all the Welsh Government criteria, in that it involves cutting-edge nanotechnology, will have a hugely beneficial environmental impact and has massive growth potential, and yet although some funding has been made available through his engagement with both Bangor and Swansea universities, I have seen at first hand how difficult it is to access further funding to take this product to fruition. Surely, Cabinet Secretary, if Wales is to succeed in its aspirations to become a world leader in this environmentally friendly technology, we have to have the funding processes that will allow this to happen.
We do, indeed. Research funding is absolutely crucial, and that’s why we’ve been very clear that any research funding that could potentially be lost when we exit the EU is made good by the UK Government. In terms of the specific company that the Member mentions, it’s not clear whether they have an account manager within Business Wales to support them, but I would gladly make contact with the company if the Member can provide details of it and ensure that Business Wales are there to give support and signpost the company to the best method of financing their product so it can reach market.
3. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on Welsh Government plans for economic development in the south Wales valleys? OAQ(5)0203(EI)
Yes. Tomorrow we will publish ‘Our Valleys, Our Future’, a high-level plan for action, building on the work of the Valleys taskforce, and in addition to this, we will continue to invest in infrastructure improvements and skills and the general environment for business across the south Wales Valleys.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for his answer. I’m sure he would agree with me that the industrial and manufacturing heritage of the Valleys is not something that should be confined to its past, but should be central to its future as well. We’ve got particular challenges facing us in terms of research and development and productivity, and I hope he won’t underestimate the potential for Welsh Government to make meaningful interventions that can transform the economic prospects of that region. Last month, the Scottish Government announced that it was going to create a national manufacturing institute in Scotland, based on the very successful advanced manufacturing centre in Sheffield. The one in Sheffield has 100 private partners plus, and it supports very highly skilled and highly paid jobs in that region. So, now that he’s got a little bit more time to tinker with his economic strategy over the summer, I wonder if he will look into the merits of creating a niche manufacturing institute, and of course that that should be located in the south Wales Valleys.
I’m very pleased to say to the Member that I’ve already done it. In fact, I announced last week that an advanced manufacturing institute based on the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield, which will be delivered with the University of Sheffield and universities in Wales, is being built. I approved the funding for the first phase of the institute just last week. It’s also my vision that, as part of the technology park that we’ll be developing in Ebbw Vale, we will see an advanced manufacturing centre of excellence configured there as well. The model of the AMRC is already proven. Institutions and businesses have access to £0.5 billion-worth of research equipment. That’s why the model is so attractive. The advanced manufacturing and research institute in north Wales will build on that model, and I was also able to reveal that, according to the business case, the AMRI in north Wales will have an economic impact of up to £4 billion on GVA in the next 20 years. I want to make sure that we replicate that sort of model of success in the south Wales Valleys.
I look forward to scrutinising in this Chamber ‘Our Valleys, Our Future’, because we certainly need a transformative vision for the Valleys. I’m not sure the Valleys landscape park would constitute a hub, but it would be a transformative vision, potentially. We’ve got to start to recognise the real potential of this resource. The Valleys were once amongst Britain’s most beautiful spots, and travellers from all over the UK would come and paint pictures and write poetry about this wonderful landscape. They should come again, and more of them. I commend the sort of vision that your colleague Huw Irranca-Davies has for a Valleys forest, for instance. There is great potential there, and now we need to match it with vision.
Can I thank David Melding for his question, and also for, once again in this Chamber, touching on the importance of well-being to the economy, and the contribution that the natural landscape can make to our well-being? My colleague the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Welsh Language will be making a statement in the Chamber concerning the idea of a Valleys park. I’m sure that it’s an idea that you will very much welcome, and will incorporate, I am sure, a good degree of forestry and outdoor health activities.
Cabinet Secretary, given the contribution that tourism is making to economic development across the country, I’m pleased to note the tremendous success that we’ve seen with the tourist investment support scheme across Wales. But I am concerned to note that, of the 205 schemes that have received offers of grant support under the tourism investment support scheme since April 2011, only four of those were located in the south Wales Valleys region. I’m very pleased to say that Rock UK in my constituency was one of them. Given the beautiful countryside that David Melding’s just been talking about, and the rich industrial and social heritage of the area, do you share my concern at this limited take-up in the Valleys, even given that TISS is a funder of last resort? Could I ask you if you’d consider undertaking some research into why businesses in this area are reluctant to take advantage of this specific source of funding and whether in fact there is scope for extending the scheme—for extending the scope of the scheme?
Can I thank Dawn Bowden for her interest again in the visitor economy? Dawn has recognised regularly in this Chamber the value that tourism can make to communities in her constituency. I do share her concerns about the number of projects funded through TISS that have actually been delivered in the communities that she’s spoken about. For that reason, we carried out a piece of work to understand why fewer businesses come forward in the Valleys than in other areas of Wales. As part of that work, we’ve also secured tourism funding from the rural development programme, which will enable us to deliver a higher intervention rate to businesses, and my officials will be undertaking a scoping study and an engagement programme, with a view to being able to develop more reputation-changing, interesting, innovative, creative tourism attractions in the Valleys communities. I think the Member’s already identified one particular attraction that has proven to be quite game changing within her community. There are many others. There are, for example, activities based on biking and mountain biking, such as Bike Park Wales, that have proven enormously successful and have changed perceptions of the area.
4. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on Welsh Government support for the hosting of major events in north Wales? OAQ(5)0195(EI)
Yes. This year we are supporting a range of sporting and cultural events in north Wales, including FOCUS Wales, Hijinx Unity Festival, RawFfest, the Good Life Experience, and Wales Rally GB. We wish to attract more major international events to Wales and are in ongoing discussions with partners in north Wales to identify new opportunities.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. I’m pleased to hear of the ongoing discussions to identify opportunities. You’ll be aware that, in the past few months alone, north Wales has successfully hosted a number of high-profile stadium concerts, from Olly Murs at the Racecourse, to the now annual epic Access All Eirias at Eirias Park, and Llanfest in your own constituency, which had the Manic Street Preachers there this year. Flintshire is also home to the national Wales rugby league team, the only national team to actually be based in north Wales, and who later this year will compete in the Rugby League World Cup in Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea, supported by a lot of local organisations and businesses in my consistency, including being suited and booted by Vaughan Davies of Mold. I’m sure the Cabinet Secretary and other colleagues will join me in wishing the Wales rugby union—rugby league team, sorry, every success in the Rugby League World Cup, but I’m also aware from constituents and others that there’s growing public support for us to be able to host major events and teams in north Wales, along with the investment in infrastructure that is needed to expand our offer. So, can I urge a further commitment from the Welsh Government to further invest in our area, to show we have the greater capacity to host events, whether that be in iconic and historic locations like Flint Castle, existing stadiums, or perhaps one day looking at a future stadium or a location in the Flintshire area of north-east Wales?
Yes, very much so. I’m looking forward to being at Flint castle this very Friday, where we’ll reveal a world-class arts installation design, which I’m sure will capture the imagination not just of people in Flint but the people of north Wales and beyond. I’d also like to extend my best wishes to the Welsh team as they go out to the Rugby League World Cup. I’m sure that they will perform magnificently and do us proud and I wish them all the best. Officials recently engaged with 30 events organisers in north Wales to scope out further opportunities. We currently spend around about £1.7 million in supporting major events in north Wales, but we want to build on the reputation that north Wales now has globally as one of the best destinations to visit for a holiday and for outdoor adventure. So, our investment must continue in those innovative products such as Surf Snowdonia, as well as the innovative major events, which can attract new and existing visitors alike. The Member may also be aware that a sports facilities study has been commissioned. Work is under way to assess what facilities are needed for future major events to be hosted in Wales. That study will look at all parts of Wales and will assess existing infrastructure as well as the demands for new sports stadia. The Member may also be interested to know that I did recently meet with the Welsh Curling Association to discuss the building of a bespoke facility in the adjoining constituency of Alyn and Deeside.
On 9 July, I had the pleasure, with many others, of watching Bryan Adams at Eirias Park in Colwyn Bay who was, of course, preceded the night before by Little Mix, and I’m looking forward, as you may be, on 4 to 6 August, to one of the highlights of my year, which is the Mold Blues and Soul festival—absolutely wonderful: great music, great local ale, great food, and, hopefully, fantastic weather, fingers crossed. Recognising that research and practice show that major popular music events are a fantastic way of stimulating the visitor economy in north Wales, what role is or could the Welsh Government play in helping to promote that within the wider regional offer?
Can I thank Mark Isherwood for his question? I’m looking forward to joining him at Mold Blues and Soul Festival in August. Perhaps we could share a pint at the Alehouse or the Glasfryn afterwards. I’m sure it will be a magnificent event. Mold has carved out an enviable reputation in the region for hosting cultural food and drink and sporting events, and I’m sure that the Blues and Soul Festival will prove hugely successful. We fund, through the tourism product innovation fund, a number of regional and local events and activities that are designed to align with the thematic years, and in north Wales this year there have been a number of events that we’ve funded to capitalise on the Year of Legends, most notably in Conwy, where an incredible festival recently took place based on what was called ‘the tournament’ and included jousting. We work with local communities, with tourism providers, and with events organisers through Visit Wales to promote all activities that are taking place, but particularly with those that are aligned with the thematic years. We noticed that, in rallying the entire sector together by using the thematic years, we’ve been able to gain added value in terms of our offer, and that’s what’s lead to a significant increase in the marketing spend that’s been generated as a consequence of the thematic years, up by around about 18 per cent, we believe, just last year.
One of the centres trying to establish itself as a venue for events with some of the major bands is the Racecourse. I have regularly raised the need to invest in the Racecourse with you, because it needs to be—and it should be—an important centre for entertainment, but also an international standard sport stadium. We constantly hear this Government making very proactive statements about conference centres and so on. When will we see the Government being as proactive in ensuring investment in the Racecourse?
Can I thank Llyr for his question? I know he shares a very keen interest in this subject with my colleague Lesley Griffiths, and with the local Member of Parliament, Ian Lucas. I’m sure all of you would like to see, as I would, the Racecourse receive investment to become a more active and vibrant hub within the Wrexham community, but, indeed, in the wider region. My officials, I’m pleased to say, recently met with Wrexham football trust. They discussed the vision for the stadium, but of key significance will be the role that the local authority plays in devising a masterplan for the town to ensure that any future investment in the stadium is aligned with other facilities and other services that are being developed in Wrexham, but, to my mind, there is no doubt that the Racecourse deserves to have investment to make sure that it can go on being the oldest international stadium in Britain, in Europe, and possibly the world. To do that, it will need further investment, and the further investment will only come as a consequence of a sound business case and a very clear vision, and that’s exactly what, through my officials, we are now trying to draw together.
5. What is the Welsh Government doing to change Wales's status as the poorest part of the UK? OAQ(2)0212(EI)
Well, on measures of household incomes and wealth, Wales is not the poorest part of the UK. Nonetheless, we do need to improve wealth and well-being considerably. Therefore, we are taking a range of actions to deliver prosperity for all in Wales, including investing in skills and infrastructure and creating an environment where businesses can start up and grow.
Well, thank you for that answer, Cabinet Minister. I asked the question because it appears that, after many years of this institution, we are now relatively poorer than we were at the start of devolution. Why, after billions of pounds of so-called European structural funding, do we find ourselves in such a position? Surely, it is time to address this situation with fundamentally different solutions than those applied before. It is time for Wales to turn away from an economy dominated by the public sector to one that is a dynamic industrial powerhouse that competes with the best in the world. We have the resources, skills, hard-working, industrious population, to make this happen. I know the Cabinet Secretary possesses those very same attributes, so will he apply them to drive this new industrial revolution in Wales and put a stop to this endless cycle of poverty?
Can I thank the Member for his question, the keen interest he shows in this area, and the passion with which he speaks about the need to grow wealth in the aggregate as well as at a community level, making sure that we spread prosperity more evenly across Wales? In terms of activities since devolution, Wales has had the fifth highest increase in gross value added per head compared to the 12 UK countries and English regions. We’ve seen a record number of people entering into work, unemployment is consistently at a very low rate, and we’ve seen the number of business births now rise to record levels. We know that there are almost—we’re just about touching on 100,000 businesses that are headquartered in Wales. But what we wish to see take place in the coming years is a move towards strengthening regional economies in Wales so that we can decentralise and deconcentrate investment. For that reason, I’m reshaping my department so that we have strong regional units that can work with the city regions, and with the growth region, and with local authorities on a regional footprint, to assess what the key sectoral strengths are across Wales, and then to hone in, develop them, and, during the fourth industrial revolution, make sure that people are skilled and make sure that businesses are futureproofed in order to create a higher-value economy, one that benefits the whole of Wales.
Cabinet Secretary, one of the best ways out of poverty is through work, and that means creating an efficient integrated transport network to allow people, particularly young people, to access jobs within a reasonable distance of their homes. However, the cost of fares can often be a deterrent to young people being able to access jobs. Given that the Welsh Government’s mytravelpass scheme, offering young people a third off bus fares, ended in March this year, what plan does the Cabinet Secretary have to assist young jobseekers with their transport costs when looking for work across Wales? Thank you.
Can I thank the Member for his question? He is absolutely right in that the lack of affordable, reliable, and frequent public transport is a major barrier preventing many people from gaining work. We know, based on all available statistics, that in the Growth Track 360 region of north Wales and the Mersey Dee area approximately a quarter of people who receive job interviews are not able to go to them because they cannot get transport to those interviews. That is an appalling—an appalling—statistic, which must be addressed. We have piloted the mytravelpass. It’s continuing whilst we consult with young people and with the bus sector on a sustainable replacement scheme. It’s my view that there are current schemes operating in the UK that are sustainable that we could look to to learn from. I was recently, with colleagues, in Liverpool learning about the Merseytravel scheme for young people, which I believe operates on the basis of £3 can get you anywhere anytime, as many trips as you want per day in that region. That’s the sort of model that’s innovative, it’s sustainable, and it’s fair, and that’s the sort of development I’d like to see in Wales. But, fundamentally, we need to reform the bus sector itself—modernise the bus sector, get better-quality buses being utilised, and change perceptions of bus travel as well, so that people access bus services not as a last resort but because they are of a sufficiently high quality to experience an enjoyable trip. I think in terms of rural communities especially bus services are absolutely vital. We’ve maintained the bus services support grant of £25 million for several years now, because we’ve recognised the value of bus services in rural communities. I’m keen to make sure that we work with the sector and with passenger groups to find more sustainable ways of growing patronage on bus services so that the level of public subsidy can be reduced without affecting the attractiveness of transport on buses.
Cabinet Secretary, I’m sure you’d agree with me that the recent announcement by CAF of the 200 to 300 jobs in Newport—quality jobs building the trains of the future to help take that integrated transport system forward—is very valuable, and I’d be very interested to know how we can capitalise on that investment by attracting further investment and, indeed, making sure that local suppliers and local firms benefit from this very welcome development.
Can I thank John Griffiths for his question? I know that he’s warmly welcomed the announcement by CAF of £30 million in his constituency, which will lead to the establishment of a fairly major manufacturing facility, employing 300 people. It’s worth saying that we managed to beat more than 100 locations around the world to secure this investment for Wales, once again stepping up and beating our competitors around the planet. Now, the facility will enable the company to assemble, test and commission new vehicles in Wales. It will have the capacity to undertake future manufacturing projects, as well as maintenance and servicing activities. When you align that to the development of the metro and investment in the next franchise, I think there are huge opportunities for us to grow a skills base in this particular sector that will maintain people in employment for a generation.
6. Will the Cabinet Secretary outline how the Welsh Government is working to improve prosperity in the south Wales valleys? OAQ(5)0207(EI)
Yes. Tomorrow, we will publish ‘Our Valleys, Our Future’, building on the work of the Valleys taskforce chaired by my colleague Alun Davies. In addition to this, we’ll continue to invest in skills, in infrastructure and in the right business environment for companies to flourish.
Cabinet Secretary, the proposals put forward by the Department for Work and Pensions over the future of their estate in Wales will see a relocation of some 200 skilled staff out of Cwmbran town centre. Not only would this have a devastating impact on the local economy in Cwmbran, but would pose enormous difficulties for staff with caring responsibilities who are unable to travel to the location that’s been proposed, which is the Treforest area. The fact that that location has been chosen suggests that the DWP have little or no understanding of the geography of Wales. I know that the Minister for Skills and Science, Julie James, who’s been incredibly helpful, was meeting with the UK Minister last Thursday, and I’d be grateful if, as a Government, you could provide an update to Members. But can I also ask you for your assurances, Cabinet Secretary, that you will do all you can personally to work with Julie James to represent the staff affected by these proposals, which will have a devastating impact on one of the poorest parts of Wales?
The Member is absolutely right, and I’ll just reiterate our strong disappointment that the DWP did not consult with Welsh Government ahead of the decision being made, without any alternative solutions being considered. And I know that the Minister has now met with the UK Government Minister, and I’m sure will be providing a written update to Members in the coming days on the discussions that took place and the further activity that will now be undertaken. And I can assure the Member as well that if any workers take redundancy, then we will offer ReAct as a means of ensuring that people can get back into work without a lengthy period of unemployment. It’s absolutely crucial that anyone affected by this who is left without work does not stay in unemployment for a long period of time, and we will help in every way possible.
Minister, you just said that the strategy will be unveiled tomorrow. The Minister, Alun Davies, made a statement last week. I did press him on his statement to try and explain what the hubs economically are going to achieve. He talked that there would be six hubs. One of those six is the automotive enterprise park—call it what you will—in Blaenau Gwent that has been allocated £100 million over 10 years. He was unable to give any information at all; I’m not sure whether that was because he didn’t know what they were going to do, or whether he was just being guarded because, obviously, there was so much focus on the Circuit of Wales concept that, obviously, sits in his constituency. I’d be grateful from your perspective if you could enlighten me as to exactly how these hubs will operate. Will they be merely just small enterprise zones? Will they be themed? Geographically, where will they be located? And what budget lines are going to be allocated to them? Given that we know £100 million has been allocated to the one in Blaenau Gwent, are we talking similar sorts of moneys for the other hubs that will be dotted around the rest of the Valleys as part of the strategy?
Can I thank Andrew R.T. Davies for his questions? Very important points were raised—the need to ensure that hubs operate in a way that generates sustainable growth. I envisage the hubs developing as opportunities for clustering and agglomeration in certain specialisms. So, it may be, for example, in Ebbw Vale, automotive. It may be, in another hub, based on house building. So, my view is that the hubs have the potential to become recognisable clusters of specialisms that, again, can enable skills partnerships across the Valleys region to home in on opportunities that are emerging through the pipeline of interests that we already have, and the pipeline of interests that we already have will lead funding to be delivered on an on-demand basis. So, any funding requirements will be drawn down from my department, and potentially other departments, if it crosses subject boundaries. In terms of the further detail that the Member requests, this is something that Alun Davies will be revealing tomorrow, but the aim of the clusters, the aim of the hubs, is to make sure that there is a concentration of activity in certain areas based on emerging economic and manufacturing trends and to take advantage of the theme of better jobs closer to home, offering people access into work and then career progression in areas of economic activity where we know there is a sustainable future.
7. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on the proposed national football museum? OAQ(5)0205(EI)[W]
Yes. Can I thank the Member for this question? It’s very exciting. We are currently running a procurement exercise on Sell2Wales to appoint a contractor to complete a feasibility study on the football museum. The study is set to commence around the end of August and will be completed within six months.
Well, thank you for your answer, and I welcome, obviously, the commissioning of this study as a consequence of an agreement between the Government and Plaid Cymru, of course. But some people are asking the question of whether there’s a slight change in direction here because the original commitment was to look into a football museum located in the north, whereas the feasibility study looks at a more general sporting museum, which, potentially, could be anywhere in Wales. Now, some people are worried that north-east Wales might lose out.
Okay. Can I just assure the Member that the specification does state that the preferred location is in Wrexham or elsewhere in north Wales? I think it’s well recognised that north Wales would do well to have a sports museum or a football museum—a specialist football museum. It could potentially complement the football museum that exists in Manchester. Given that it’s a live procurement, there’s a limited amount that I can say on this, but we have honoured the agreement that we reached, and I’m excited about this piece of work. I think it could produce a very, very enticing idea that we would be keen to deliver, provided the feasibility study makes it an affordable one.
On a similar theme, I’ve also had similar concerns raised with me regarding the feasibility study—the procurement document you refer to—which does, I’m told, talk of there being a sports museum in Wales, so I’m reassured by your comments. But do you agree that it is important that what comes out of this ensures that the north-east is recognised for its pioneering role in promoting what’s become, for many, the national sport—some might argue it’s rugby union but, for many others, it’s football—recognising that this club started in 1872, that it’s where the first international match was played in Wales, where the Football Association of Wales was formed, and that it’s home, of course, to one of the world’s oldest football clubs?
Yes, absolutely. Wrexham Association Football Club have an incredible history that deserves to be recognised and promoted. I can also assure Members, because I heard on the opposition benches concerns expressed about whether this would be a national museum of Wales or just a football museum. We will be engaging the National Museum Wales in discussions and deliberations as part of the feasibility study. As far as Wrexham AFC and football as a whole are concerned, north-east Wales has a very proud heritage in the sport. Many of us from that part of Wales would consider it to be certainly one of the national sports—probably the one that was most widely played by us when we were growing up—and we’re keen to make sure that any investment in a facility such as this serves to inspire people as well as to capture the past and to inspire people to go on to be very successful in football in the future.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary.