Covid is driving a revolution in the world. But will west Wales miss out on the exciting prospects it offers for the rural economy asks Havard Hughes?
For generations in Carmarthenshire there has been an unwritten assumption. To have a career in anything other than agriculture you had to leave. Entire generations packed their bags – often for an English university – from which you would never return. Save perhaps some far off day when you would eventually retire to the land of your fathers. Virtually everybody I knew at my Carmarthen comprehensive headed east, because that’s where the well paid jobs were. This of course has a profound effect on our communities, our economy and on our language.
Over the last few decades the brain drain has intensified. More and businesses, and even government departments have centralised their activities in ever fewer hubs. At least some of these have recently been located to the nations and rations. However, vast swathes of economically active people have been forced into cramped expensive accommodation in our cities. The gleaming towers of London and Cardiff were for many the only means of building a successful career.
The Welsh establishment’s solution to these problems has reflected their obsession with a top-down Cardiff-size-fits-all approach. Rural Wales has been allowed to wither on the vine with every more resources sucked into their greater Cardiff. Here in Carmarthenshire we’re ruled by Plaid at every layer of Government. Their idea of delivering is to make the same empty promises on their leaflets, election after election. Our communities’ languish in the internet and transport slow lane while they froth at the mouth about independence. Whilst in the past this has been an irritation, or perhaps a curiosity to London based journalists, in the post-covid world this could be an economic catastrophe.
With the right focus on technology and innovation there is a huge jobs potential for rural communities in west Wales. Simply sorting out broadband connectivity could generate an economic boost with an influx of high-earning residents pumping money into the local economy and supporting many more jobs. Moreover, with ever more technology being automated, the economic forces which once favoured manufacturing overseas are being thrown into reverse.
The idea of remote working has been around a long time. Tools such as skype were created 20 years ago. Many of us will have worked in firms who had an official policy of home working. Until 2019 however many of these policies were never activated. They languished in employee handbooks gathering dust. Managers were concerned that staff they could not see, were staff who could not be properly at work.
The pandemic has ended all of this. Over the last year the world of work has been gripped by a revolution. Staying at home to save lives has ushered in an era of unprecedented home working and home schooling. People have also begun to question their lifestyle and circumstances. Why spend thousands a year commuting to work or living in a cramped city flat when all your work is undertaken at a computer? The effects of this have already been seen in rising rural house prices. Indeed in west-Wales house prices have experienced growth not seen since the 1980s.
Nations like Barbados have been quick to realise the potential. “Work from Paradise” shouted the adverts. Barbados has issued temporary residents visas to work from the Caribbean, with the aim of bringing much needed funds to the economy. After all, if you’re using a computer and communicating with your colleagues through Zoom or Microsoft Teams then you could, quite literally, be based anywhere.
Anywhere other than parts of West Wales that is. Pretty much everybody in Carmarthenshire will have heard of broadband. Actually having reliable access to high-speed broadband is quite a different matter. I’ve been one of the lucky(ish) ones – not too far from the local exchange. I’ve been able to set up my trade consultancy and run it from Carmarthenshire working with collaborators around the globe.
Broadband in Carmarthenshire is far from what it should be – or what you would get in west London. It has a nasty habit of cutting out at an inopportune moment or simply when it rains. Many residents I’ve spoken to have problems with bandwidth and speed of their service. Not to mention the fact that if you live in the hills of north Carmarthenshire broadband remains a strangely distant prospect. Like some figure from Welsh myth, it is rumoured to be slumbering just over the hillside, but you’ll never see it in your lifetime. According to Plaid run Carmarthenshire County Council’s website 86% of the county has “access” to superfast broadband. Access apparently is a very flexible word indeed in west Wales. The take up figure of only 40% tells more of the story.
In reality Carmarthenshire’s broadband services too often terminate at the exchange or the box at the end of the road. What happens between your house and the network is a murky tale. It is however where the problems of speed and reliability occur. Talk to a telecoms engineer and they seem to be actively discouraged from doing anything that would transform connectivity from the exchange to your house. So much then for the universal service obligation.
Plaid’s solution to Carmarthenshire’s broadband not-spots is of course independence. Cutting Wales off from England and will apparently miraculously improve our broadband speeds. Plaid has been in power at every level in Carmarthenshire for decades. Whether it is road or rail connections, health services or broadband the nationalists have let Carmarthenshire down.
Yet is hardly surprising Plaid have systematically failed to deliver. Separatists have no interest in actually fixing the issues like connecting west Wales’ broadband. After all, that would mean one less reason for independence. Easier and more politically expedient to blame the English than to actually solve the problem.
Change is coming to Carmarthenshire whether our nationalist overlords like it or not. The work revolution and good broadband have the potential not just to provide an evening’s entertainment but to transform lives and the rural economy.
Havard Hughes is the Welsh Conservative Senedd candidate for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr