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What next for regional development in Wales?

November 23rd 2020

Ahead of the Spending Review and Valleys Taskforce statement, Helen Cunningham asks what’s next for a new era of regional development

This week’s Senedd and Westminster business contains two notable items: the much anticipated Spending Review and a Senedd statement on the Valleys Taskforce. Both are important for where regional development goes next.

The statement on the Taskforce is likely to be a progress update and perhaps reflections on the time it has left and what happens after that. Given that the Local Government and Elections Bill was passed last week, the Corporate Joint Committees (CJCs) created in the legislation will be important – now statutory- vehicles for delivering the Welsh Government’s vision for regional development, including the valleys.

But what about the Spending Review? Much rests on it. It is hoped it will finally tell us more about the long-awaited Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF), including the reports that local authorities in Wales will have a significant role in its delivery. The big question is what role, if any, will the Welsh Government have. If the UK government refuses to devolve it, the Welsh Government and its partners must be closely involved in its design to make it meaningful and for it to work to maximum effect in Wales.

So what should both do?

The SPF is replacing EU regional development funding that previously came by virtue of EU membership. A large chunk of successive EU funding came to West Wales and the Valleys based on eligibility levels of need –determined by economic output. A needs-based allocation is critical for regional development that is fair and promotes equity between and within places and communities. In the same vein, the rationale to the creation of the valleys taskforce in 2016 – an area that requires targeted support – the case was made on the basis of need.

But it’s also an opportunity to fine tune that. As we’ve previously said, economic output is a blunt instrument for understanding levels and types of needs. A broader range of measures are needed that reflect the levels of poverty, income and skills levels and economic inactivity. This approach would also help clarify and focus resources better in any future valleys initiative. The area is far from homogenous and a widely drawn area that is not needs based risks interventions being targeted on quick wins, rather than the difficult stuff- the people and places that need it most.

Levelling Up

Both need to work long term. One of the benefits of the EU seven-year multiannual programming periods was that they extend over electoral cycles and have longevity of delivery. And delivery is what counts for making a tangible difference to people’s lives. Both have the opportunity to ask who or what, is best placed to deliver change at pace and with consistency. Developing and designing new processes and interventions always takes time, but sometimes at the expense of delivery. Here is a chance to focus relentlessly on outcomes.

For both, reflections on what has gone before will be important. For the SPF, how can the best of the monitoring and management of previous European Funds be re-created without creating an over-bureaucratic system? For the taskforce, what have been its biggest achievements and what has worked well? We’ve always said that addressing the underlying causes of disadvantage – lack of decent jobs, improving qualifications and skills, while building on assets is what should drive change in the valleys.

As one phase of regional development comes to an end, and another one begins, the chance to really “level up” in Wales – for people and places- is one that can’t afford to be missed.

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