Adrian Mason is the Deputy Chairman (Political) of the North Wales Conservatives.
North Wales spoke with a clear voice in the 2019 General Election. Its people rejected socialism, and in doing so, elected an additional five Conservative MPs.
Heralding the new political era, Sarah Atherton, MP for Wrexham, which turned blue for the first time ever in 2019, said:
“Together with my six North Wales colleagues, we are a strong team of complementary backgrounds and perspectives. We have a real ambition to make a difference for our home in the next few years”.
However, the stunningly good election result did not entirely rid us of the socialist blight. The fact remains that we in North Wales are partly governed by a devolved Labour Welsh Government (WG) centred in geographically distant Cardiff. Keen to protect their Southern political base, the WG have never shown much understanding of the interests of the North. With road and rail journey times of at least four hours from the North Wales coast to Cardiff, the conditions will never exist to develop a common economic infrastructure between the North and the South. North Wales needs to look elsewhere.
Our part of Wales has historically always looked to our neighbours in North-West England for its economic, cultural, and social ties. Though our transport infrastructure is not perfect, it is infinitely easier to travel to Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham than it is to Cardiff. To stimulate enterprise as we emerge from the Covid crisis, it is essential to strengthen and reinforce these links.
One way to do this would be to establish a special economic zone straddling the border between England and Wales. Deeside is already one of the most important manufacturing regions of the United Kingdom. It has potential to grow still further, but is being held back by the different economic policies that prevail in England and Wales.
The new economic zone should have its own planning and development policies, devolved to it by both Westminster and Cardiff. Set free, it would have the potential to become a manufacturing powerhouse, rivalling anything in the major global economies.
The potential of a cross-border “city region“ was identified by the business consultant Elizabeth Hayward in a paper she wrote for the WG some years ago. It was an idea of great foresight and should be adopted. To do so would show great political maturity on the part of both the Westminster and Cardiff administrations and a sign that, done well, devolution can actually be a force for prosperity.
The North Walian former Secretary of State for Wales, David Jones, explains:
“Deeside is crucial to the economic wellbeing of North Wales; when it prospers, that prosperity ripples across the region. The creation of a special enterprise zone would be a bold and far-sighted move, exactly what we will need as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.”
In a study commissioned by the WG in 2018, Professor Mark Barry of Cardiff University highlighted a case for the electrification of the railway line between Holyhead and Crewe to maximise the opportunities that will become available through HS2. The study set out an overarching vision for the upgrade of the line, along with enhanced links to Manchester Airport, and a direct link from Wrexham to Merseyside. The Department for Transport has estimated that to electrify the North Wales Coast line would cost £764 million and is seen by many to be too expensive and disproportionate to the benefits it would achieve. In a reply to a written question, this February, to the Minister of Transport in Westminster, Chris Heaton-Harris declared that there are currently no plans to electrify the North Wales Coast line. However, a more beneficial and cost-effective way would be to improve the existing track and introduce new rolling stock to achieve speeds, for example, equivalent to the HS1 Javelin trains that operate from Ashford in Kent to St. Pancreas in just 37 minutes. This would vastly reduce journey times along the North Wales Coast, would be a cheaper solution and maximise the opportunities afforded by HS2.
North Wales is fortunate in having a world-class university right at its heart. Bangor University Vice Chancellor, Professor Iwan Davies, fully recognises the role his institution can play in providing the skills and developing the talent needed to stimulate the local economy. He says that his university could:
“…inspire an arc of innovation extending from Holyhead through to Dublin and along a crescent to the North West of England.” He explains that the University is keen to “support the industrial base, making it more competitive; it has already forged deep collaboration with key industrial partners and Further Education providers to reskill the workforce.”
One of the Prime Minister’s key economic policies is the roll out of universal gigabit broadband. This is particularly needed in predominantly rural North Wales. Currently only 13.9 per cent of the Welsh population has hyper speed broadband and the majority are based in South East Wales. The introduction of ultrafast broadband in North Wales would have a transformational effect on the local economy, enabling it to compete with world markets on equal terms.
Tourism is also a hugely important element of the North Wales economy. The industry is estimated to be worth over £3.2 billion and supports more than 43,000 jobs in North Wales. With its dramatic landscapes and miles of superb beaches, our region has much to offer. That could be destroyed if the WG decides to introduce its proposed tourism tax, a step much feared by the North Wales hospitality industry. Although WG does have a Tourism Investment Fund (WTIF) providing a relatively modest £50m of capital investment to the whole of Wales, this needs to be dramatically improved and WG investment specifically set aside to stimulate the North Wales tourist industry after the extended lockdown this Spring.
In summary, North Wales, post-Covid, should be seeking to build on the traditional synergy it shares with the North-West of England. This is an economic relationship but is founded on a shared identity not fully understood by Cardiff. We are now predominantly a Conservative region and must repay the trust placed in us by exercising Conservative values and principles.
We have the talent, the Higher Educational infrastructure, and industrial base to sustain it. Crucially, we have the backing of the electorate to reinvigorate our local economy as only Conservatives know how. The WG and Westminster Government need to work together to find positive solutions that will further increase the productivity of North Wales, allowed opportunity, and bolster the undoubted entrepreneurial spirit that exists here. If devolution is to be fully embraced by the people of North Wales then it will require the WG to work positively with the Westminster Government. It needs a mature approach by all concerned, to recognise the changed political dynamics here in North Wales, to work with us and to fully value and support the contribution we can make to the economy.