Wales goes to the polls in the National Assembly elections in less than two weeks. If you would have told me a year ago that I’d be putting out a joint statement with a Tory Government in the middle of the short campaign I’d have laughed, and yet that is what we did on Thursday.
We set out a joint package of support, which could end up with the country taking a partial stake in the steel industry. Such is the importance of the steel industry to Wales, and to the whole of the UK.
Of course I still have huge differences of opinion with David Cameron on any number of matters – including on the UK Government’s lack of a long-term industrial strategy – but with thousands of jobs on the line, people want to see us pulling together where we can, and I think we’ve made real progress this week. The comments from Unite and Community trades unions welcoming the step forward simply underlines the point.
Our Economy Minister, Edwina Hart, travelled out to Brussels twice last week and along with Sajid Javid and Anna Soubry met with steelmakers and Governments from all over Europe, and indeed across the world. As a Welsh Labour Government we don't have the ideological hang-up that others do when it comes to using tariffs and barriers when the situation demands – if it is an approach good enough for the US, surely it is good enough for us too.
The package of support from both governments is substantial, and shows seriousness of purpose. My early call for the pensions liability to be dealt with as a matter of urgency seems to bearing fruit, and slowly barriers to a successful outcome are being removed. However, there is a huge amount of work still to be done, and we can’t think we are even close to a satisfactory resolution. My starting point on the steel crisis was simple – these plants cannot close. Wales, and the UK, needs steel. It is a strategic industry, and we can’t seriously call ourselves a modern industrial powerhouse without it.
It is heartening to know there is serious interest in taking over the plants from a number of individuals and groups. Much of the current focus is on the management buyout option, headed by Tata Steel’s Stuart Wilkie. I’ve spoken with Stuart a number of times, and I will be meeting him again tomorrow. He is passionate about the steel industry – and he’s got good people around him.
The Welsh billionaire, Sir Terry Matthews, well known to us in Welsh Government, as he Chairs our Swansea Bay City Region, is advising. Also involved is Roger Maggs, Chair of the recently established Port Talbot Waterfront Enterprise Zone. This is a bid with lots of goodwill behind it, and we stand ready to help - as we do with all other potential buyers who can save our steel jobs.
In the midst of this fast changing scene on steel, some remarkable figures were published this week that showed the value of our active economic and industrial strategy in Wales. The latest unemployment statistics showed that, at 5%, Wales now has a lower unemployment rate than the UK average – more than a full percentage point lower than Scotland, or London. Allied with recent research on a notable increase in disposable income levels in Wales, particularly in North Wales, a confident picture is emerging of a Welsh economy asserting itself at last.
This hasn’t happened by accident, and the fact that we’re outpacing the English regions shows it hasn’t happened as a result of the Chancellor’s actions either. The Welsh Labour Government has spent the last five years investing in our skills and infrastructure to create the optimum conditions for growth.
Through this approach, we have secured our best ever inward investment figures and in recent weeks we’ve beaten off global competition to land big name companies. Aston Martin, TVR and Relentless Software, to name but three, were all being courted by other governments and regional development agencies. We won them over with the strength of our pitch. It isn’t just about money, Aston Martin confirmed they had better financial incentives from others, and to use their own words - “What really swung it was the passion and the professionalism of the people we dealt with in Wales.”
Inward investment has always been important for Wales, but we’re doing more than ever to support indigenous businesses too. If you look at the wider economies in our steel areas, we have, for example, the Deeside Enterprise Zone on the doorstep of the Shotton steel works. That’s got the Further Education sector hooked up with industry to deliver the right skilled workforce and boost R&D capacity. We are also in the process of establishing a Wales Advanced Manufacturing Institute, and a Shared Apprenticeship Scheme in conjunction with the local college.
Down the road from the Llanwern plant in Newport, we’ve helped establish the UK’s first National Software Academy to address the current shortage of skilled software graduates needed by employers in Wales. Delivered with Cardiff University and the Alacrity Foundation, the three-year degree programme in applied software engineering has been set up to train and educate the next generation of skilled software engineers in Wales.
Alongside the 100,000 all-age apprenticeships we will fund in the next Government, we’ve shown we are ready to meet the future demands of every growth sector in Wales. By surrounding and supporting our manufacturing industry with the best of the best in the knowledge economy, we’re giving both the best chance to thrive.
Tomorrow we’re going to signal our intent to go further – and start earlier – by unveiling our plan to give every child in Wales access to coding workshops, and expand the successful ‘Technocamps’ initiative led by Swansea University.
There’s a real success story here for the whole of Wales. But, it will count for little if we can’t hold on to our steel industry. Election, or no election, the next few days and weeks are crucial to keeping that success story on the road.