As the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Infrastructure and Skills, launches the Welsh Government consultation on the shape and purpose of a new National Infrastructure Commission for Wales, Ed Evans, Director of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) Cymru, examines how this commission can best support economic growth in Wales.
We have great economic opportunities ahead of us in Wales – but only if we put in place infrastructure that is fit for the 21st Century. This will only be achieved if we take a far more integrated, connected and long term view of our infrastructure needs which is directly linked to economic growth. What flows from this is clarity and certainty of the projects we need, the investment needed to fund them and the skills and resources we need to deliver. This is what will make a massive difference to the future prospects of our communities and this is what we believe a National Infrastructure Commission for Wales can and should deliver.
CECA Cymru, along with many partners across the construction sector, have long campaigned for the development of a long term strategy for the delivery of infrastructure in Wales and called on all parties to support a “Vision for Infrastructure in Wales for 2040” ahead of the National Assembly election earlier this year. We welcomed the Compact agreement between Plaid Cymru and Labour to work together to establish a new National Infrastructure Commission for Wales. With Plaid Cymru already having nailed their colours to the mast with their proposals for the Commission, the Welsh Government followed up with its own consultation on the development of the Commission with the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure providing some details on his plans for the body. However, the “devil is always in the detail” and the last thing we need in Wales is the establishment of a “toothless talking shop” which promises much but is not equipped to deliver.
Wales needs a Commission to focus on what is needed to support economic growth. It needs to set out a clear vision for the future, across the whole of Wales, connecting individual projects to a much wider infrastructure strategy, so that decision makers, funders and the people of Wales have clarity on the social, environmental and economic benefits that new infrastructure brings. And this needs to be viewed in the context of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.
For the Commission to have credibility and purpose it also needs to be tasked with the role of identifying the investment needed to fund these projects. We shouldn’t constrain ourselves to existing and, sadly, dwindling public sector resources. The Commission needs to be ambitious and should actively consider innovative funding mechanisms to bring forward infrastructure projects which can make a positive difference to our economy. And, whilst we welcome that the Cabinet Secretary has stated that the Commission should be up and running within the next 12 months, Wales cannot afford to, and shouldn’t have to, wait any longer for projects which we know will improve our economy now.
Why is this so important, not just to those working in the sector but to the broader economy? Clarity and certainty are essential for the businesses which grow our economy and yet the delivery of infrastructure, not just in Wales but across the UK, is characterised by exactly the opposite – uncertainty and a lack of clarity. We know from recent studies that delays to infrastructure projects and indecision cost our economy dearly – almost £50,000 per minute on transport projects alone. This undermines business confidence to invest. A strong Commission can and must address this.
Finally, and crucially, the Commission needs to set out clearly the skills and resources needed to deliver this joined up programme of infrastructure projects. This will allow employers, training providers and education establishments to confidently invest in recruiting, training and upskilling the people we need. CITB Cymru estimates that we will need over 5,000 people per annum to deliver our current aspirations and this figure will only increase if the Commission identifies the reality of what we need in Wales. Whilst this is certainly a challenge it offers great opportunities. These are high value, long term jobs that could not only transform our economy but breathe prosperity into those communities that are in greatest need of regeneration. We know that every £1 spent on infrastructure projects directly boosts GDP by £1.30 with indirect effects up to £2.84 per pound spent. So, a £1bn investment in, say, an M4 relief road, a tidal lagoon in Swansea or a nuclear power station in north Wales, can generate almost £3bn in value for local communities and that’s before we even consider the long term economic benefits. The multiplier effect is enormous! But the preparatory work needs to be happening now to ensure that the significant numbers of highly skilled workers needed are available in Wales, and stay in Wales. The lack of high quality apprenticeships in Wales at present is of great concern. The Welsh Government commitment to creating 100,000 high-quality, all age apprenticeships is of course welcomed as is the confirmation by the Regional Skills and Innovation Partnerships of the industry’s position as a Priority Sector. However, questions remain on the introduction of the UK Government’s Apprenticeship Levy and the consequent impact here in Wales. We need certainty on these matters as quickly as possible and we need to have the confidence to start gearing up.
As the Welsh Government moves ahead with consulting industry on the shape and purpose of a National Infrastructure Commission for Wales, we, our partners and stakeholders across, not just the construction industry but the broader business sector must continue to work together for a solution which delivers for Wales. During a challenging time, this is a golden opportunity to build a more prosperous Wales.