It’s been a grim year for Welsh and British businesses. Economic activity has come to a grinding halt; unemployment is on a steep increase; business debt climbs and the damage to the high street has accelerated with many towns appearing unsalvageable writes Charlie Evans.
In my own town of Aberystwyth, the town had many empty units before the COVID-19 pandemic but since retail has reopened the further decline has been noticeable. Whilst the Welsh Government has finally made some tentative steps to reopen tourism; bars, pubs and restaurants still cannot open indoors until August 3 with most of the summer season well and truly behind them.
I myself am a retail manager in a big corporation and the national commentary has rightly focused on supporting our small and medium businesses weather the storm, but the crisis facing big-employing, well-paying large businesses is severe too. John Lewis has announced its axing stores they only opened a few years ago, Boots have said they are making big cuts and manufacturers like Rolls Royce have had to scale-back too.
This gloomy outlook is despite the UK Government having stood behind Welsh businesses and Welsh jobs. 418,000 jobs have been protected through job retention schemes and £273 million has been paid out to self-employed people. Millions have been paid out in Bounce Back Loans, Business Interruption Loans and Large Business Support and Wales has been provided with the fiscal firepower to issue business rate relief as well as £25,000 grants for many thousands of businesses as well as loans between £5,000 and £250,000 from the Development Bank of Wales. However, the worst of the economic consequences have yet to reverberate.
I could point to the Labour Welsh Government’s dithering that has caused immeasurable harm to many businesses over the last four months. But what we desperately need is an economic recovery plan which has somehow evaded them. The Welsh Government has sought to flex its constitutional muscles this pandemic and has exposed just how many powers they now possess, but with great power comes great responsibility, and with the economy intrinsically linked to the public health response, it is right we demand a lot of the Welsh Government. In a Survationpoll, a majority thinks Welsh Government should forge its own distinct strategy by a majority of 15%. The truth is the economic recovery will be down to the shared efforts of UK Government, Welsh Government, local authorities, businesses themselves and customers.
But despite the adverse circumstances, much has made of an opportunity to reset the economy. Many have used this moment to continue to push the silly left-wing ideas such as a four-day working weeks and a Universal Basic Income, the latter will lower productivity, remove flexibility for businesses and jobs and will prove more costly and increase unemployment not reduce it. Therefore don’t be surprised if Welsh Labour come to adopt these ideas as they are more of the same micro-managerial, we-know-best policies of old; we are already seeing Plaid Cymru want to use new devolved tax powers as a means of increasing taxes .
But I am calling for a reset of our own. Wales has languished and been left behind the rest of the UK due to 21 years of one-party rule and we in Wales disproportionately have more low-skilled and low-paid jobs compared to other parts of Britain.
We need a new generation of young people bold enough to setup new businesses, to invent new things and form new markets. We should cut all taxes for start-ups at local authority, Welsh Government and UK Government level. We need to use these low interest rates by getting banks to lend more to our young entrepreneurs and the Welsh Government should be bold enough to take on some of the liability where projects go wrong; a small thing to ask with big gains potentially to be had.
Broadband has improved but it is still shoddy for rural Wales. Fibre broadband should be the bare minimum, but we need to be quick and ready to make ultrafast and full fibre available to all, as well as being quick to embrace 5G technology. As Welsh Conservatives we should increase the provision of Broadband Cymru to pay-out grants to help businesses with the setup costs. On transport links, North, West and Mid Wales are far behind the south with trains being both irregular and slow. This is all without even mentioning the Welsh Government’s broken promises regarding the M4 Relief Road! All of this dithering deters the private sector from investing in us with Ineos pulling out of Bridgend for this very reason.
In our high streets, we should extend business rate relief for small independent businesses and champion the causes of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) which have done much to improve the communities they serve, often doing far more good than town and county councils themselves. And of course we need to think of ways to stop the brain drain and to keep the bright and big thinkers here in Wales.
Businesses have been supported throughout this crisis by the UK Conservative Government, a Government which has set the global gold standard. Welsh businesses have been let down by the Welsh Government with their rigid inflexible leadership as we have unlocked the lockdown far too slowly; too often if it has felt Wales’ approach has been an independent approach for the sake of it. But the waters ahead are choppy. Let’s use this moment to reset Wales’ economy, to help businesses not just weather the storm but have a bright future going forward too.
Charlie Evans is the Deputy Chairman Political for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire Conservatives and a Retail Manager.