Opinion: Brexit Britain's regions need visionary thinking

The regions need better policymaking than the kind of short-term thinking that has resulted in the 2018 cuts in the toll for the Severn Bridge, says Tim Williams.

As I was crossing the Severn Bridge into my homeland in early January my heart sank. Normally it soars as I cross into Wales, particularly in the last six years that I have lived outside the UK. I may live in New South Wales but I’m still at heart a Valleys boyo from old South Wales.

It sank because, at virtually the moment I crossed the bridge, I heard that the UK government was to drop the cost of the toll by more than 50 per cent for cars and more for trucks. What’s not to like? Because the decision was short sighted and politically cowardly. I have argued before that the Welsh and UK governments should continue with the tolls at more or less the same levels, but guarantee that much of the income be used as an income stream. This income stream could fund the vital new infrastructure Wales needs, particularly the emerging Valleys Metro, which could galvanise the South Wales economy and provide new job opportunities for communities that are currently poorly connected to the labour market.

But no, short-termism and the worst of kind of populism have triumphed over vision and leadership. South Wales is poor and getting poorer vis-a-vis the European Union (EU) average – which is why the Valleys voted for Brexit - and the Welsh government has very little discretionary funding for big public projects. So guess what, they turn their back on a game-changing opportunity to get a big new source of funding from tolling the bridge. They opt for short term political applause from poor people, rather then developing a strategic tool to lift them out of poverty in the longer term.

To add to the depression I felt as I crossed over into Wales, I realised the scarce funding and borrowing that the Welsh government has access to is about to be squandered on widening the (apparently) congested M4 around Newport – at a mind-blowing cost. I say squander, because you cannot reduce congestion by widening roads. Moreover, by reducing the cost of using the Severn Bridge they will encourage more people to drive, thereby making the M4 more congested, however much they spend on it. You just couldn’t make it up.

Structural problems

At the same time the Welsh political class, just like their equivalents in England and Scotland, are fixating about Brexit and Trump rather than getting on with sorting out the major structural problems facing all regions outside London and the South East. Who is really working on a new regional policy post Brexit? Where are the breakthrough ideas on urban regeneration?

My worry is that, despite good noises about a more balanced Britain from Number 10, the government will be distracted (inevitably) by negotiating to leave the EU, while ‘remoaners’ will not be able to stop trying to wreck Brexit. That will leave no-one focussed on policy for the regions and other losers from globalisation in the UK.

One good thing from my recent visit to London, by the way, was the innovative policy coming out of the London mayor’s team on social and affordable housing, which I found was gaining support both from advocates for affordable housing and private developers.

Also, having been to talk with the Number 10 housing advisor l came away feeling that there was a non-ideological collaboration emerging between the UK government and the London mayor on some key aspects of housing policy. Ironically, that phrase would have been impossible to write in the Brown-Livingstone era when I worked for the government. Good on ‘em, as we Welsh-Australians say. 

Tim Williams is chief executive officer of Australia based, independent think tank, the Committee for Sydney. He was previously special adviser to a number of cabinet ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government.

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