Why localism offers a path to building resilient communities post Covid-19

Wrexham. Picture by Kenneth Allen (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Carrie Harper, Plaid Cymru Councillor for the Queensway ward on Wrexham Council

Business as usual is not an option if we want to build shock-resistant communities post-Covid. The virus has exposed the extent of our reliance on complex global supply chains and we have increasingly relied on local businesses, local inventiveness and local people to support us in our hour of need.

This idea of ‘localism’, also offers us a path to recovery based on building strong, sustainable and durable communities going forward, and it’s one that should sound familiar to people in Wales.

Wales has often been described as a community of communities and, when it comes to real sustainability, for many generations we have been world leaders. With the onset of globalisation, Welsh community blueprints – rooted in basic ideas such as local food production, cradling a vibrant local culture and valuing our environment – have too often been brushed aside in the name of progress.

Covid-19 is shining a spotlight on a core idea we in Wales already knew: backing local is not just a fluffy feel-good kind of thing to do, it’s absolutely fundamental to our well-being on all levels. The basic principles that naturally emerge from this way of thinking give us the foundation for dealing with huge issues such as climate change, along with the road map to improving our quality of life and ultimately building community wealth across the country.

 

Grim

According to figures released by HMRC, almost a third of all workers in the north of Wales are currently on furlough or are receiving self-employment support. That’s more than 100,000 families bracing themselves for what comes next in the face of tapering UK Government support schemes, forecasts of a synchronised global recession and Brexit also still looming on the horizon.

It’s a bleak picture and a worrying time for our communities that will demand the best of us all politically in forging a path ahead. On a local level over the last few weeks I’ve spoken to many worried workers following announcements about job losses on a scale I’ve never seen in my lifetime.

Just last week Airbus in Broughton announced 1435 job losses, having already laid off 500 agency workers. Magellan, based in Llay, has also announced 240 job losses, Mail Solutions and others locally are also facing job cuts. The picture across Wales is sadly just as depressingly grim and many fear this is only the tip of the iceberg.

This is not going to be easy, there is no sugar coating it but the current crisis is also an opportunity for bold ideas that both allow us to protect livelihoods and to build back better. So what does that mean in practice?

It means we have the opportunity to re-think this idea that bigger is better and should start looking closer to home for solutions. A global economy that prioritises economic growth over all else in a race to the bottom is a very one-dimensional way of looking at the world. It is also causing immeasurable environmental damage and it’s left our community infrastructure weak and vulnerable to any sort of trauma.

It’s also an idea whose time has passed according to Bangor University lecturer Dr Ed Jones, who today published an article predicting that more businesses and Governments “will want to have their supplies closer to home as they emerge from months of unprecedented lockdown”.

He also specifically refers to Flintshire and Wrexham as being very well positioned to take advantage of what he terms the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ revolving around artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, energy storage and quantum computing. Given our manufacturing skill base in north-east, we are actually perfectly placed for this transition.

Knitting together the economic powerhouse potential of the north of Wales, along with our sustainable food-producing geography and the green potential of our coast, and we start to glimpse what a real economic plan for the north of Wales based on our needs and aspirations actually looks like.

Add to this a population crying out for well-paid work across this range of sectors and others, and the way forward is increasingly obvious. We’re more than someone else’s playground, this is where we live and work. We need to ensure our young people have the option to stay in Wales because we’re offering quality work, quality training and quality research opportunities.

No more ‘see the north West of England’ and a lifeboat economy for us, the future’s local and the north of Wales could be about to bloom.

Crumbs

In order to future proof the Welsh economy, we need an economic recovery package that not only addresses the immediate challenges but also looks beyond its nose in terms of what comes next. It will mean all of us playing our part in terms of a switch to backing local at all levels and driving societal change that delivers more sustainable outcomes.

Plaid Cymru has long championed the idea of more local procurement for instance, using the huge budgets of local authorities, health boards and the public sector generally to ensure the Welsh pound stays in Wales and goes into the pockets of local businesses.

We’ve not just talked the talk either, as Plaid-led councils such as Ceredigion and Carmarthen are already leading the way on this, as well as championing innovative ideas in terms of community ownership and renewable projects. It’s a no brainer, which would stop hundreds of millions leaking out of the Welsh economy every year and now needs to be made a legal requirement to ensure progress happens quickly.

Wales can be at the cutting edge of new innovative industries but is currently left with crumbs from the Westminster table because a half of all the UK’s research and development funding is centred in just three English cities – London, Cambridge and Oxford.

By contrast, Welsh universities get just 2% of that research and development funding. Innovation funds should be available for universities in Wales such as Glyndwr here in Wrexham to work with businesses and create a stronger domestic economy built around local supply chains and ownership.

We also need more economic levers devolved to deliver this change. Decisions for Wales must be made here in Wales.

We absolutely need an increased capacity to borrow in order to invest in this recovery, a policy Plaid has already outlined when launching the party’s emergency economic renewal plan. This includes the idea of an All Wales Renewal Fund, funding that could be used to provide an employment guarantee scheme for young people, as well as supporting and investing in local businesses.

We also have the opportunity to transform sectors hardest hit by the pandemic and help them transition ready for new opportunities, and to invest in a Green New Deal to create thousands of new jobs, energy-efficient homes and sustainable transport.

We have the skills, the vision and the opportunity to transform our economy and our communities for the better. All that’s missing is having the party in the driving seat with the political will to deliver this change.

The 2021 Senedd elections in 10 months’ time are a timely opportunity to remedy that problem.

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