Stronger cross-border economic and educational ties between south Wales and the west of England, to compete with new and powerful Metro mayors in places like Birmingham and Manchester, have been identified as key priority by Secretary of State for Wales Alun Cairns.
Speaking at a meeting of Cardiff Breakfast Club, Mr Cairns also confirmed that a Severn Growth Summit, bringing together key stakeholders from both regions to explore greater collaboration, has been organised for January 22 at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport.
Mr Cairns said that powerful new Metro mayors in England meant that Cardiff and the wider city region had to fight even harder to remain competitive.
He said: “These powerful figures will be keen to brand and market their areas and compete with other cities and regions across the UK and Europe. So Cardiff needs to compete to remain in the premier league of UK and European cities.”
On closer-cross border collaboration he said: “I am keen to develop an economic hub on the western side of the UK. For example, from Bristol to Newport to Cardiff we have one of the strongest digital clusters in the UK.
“Another key cluster is financial services. The Treasury recognise Cardiff as a financial services centre of excellence and Bristol has similar expertise too. So developing this region is one of my key priorities.
“This is why abolishing the Severn tolls is so important. It was my number one aim when I became Secretary of State for Wales – sending a direct message to businesses, commuters and tourists that Wales is open for business.
“Furthermore, Bristol is the only city in England and Wales, outside London, that adds to UK productivity. That’s why one of my priorities is to improve rail connectivity between Cardiff and Bristol.”
On next month’s summit in Newport, he said: “I want to bring together local partners from across the south-west of England and the south Wales to explore how we can further strengthen the links between the two economies.
” I want to understand more about the west of England LEP [local enterprise partnership], what the Bristol City Deal looks like, how the Bristol enterprise zone works and what are the ambitions of their mayors [for Bristol and the west of England].”
When asked in a question-and-answer session after his speech whether the UK Government’s proposed post-Brexit Shared Prosperity Fund could bypass the Welsh Government to directly fund businesses, or be distributed at a city regional level, he was it “too early to make a call” and that the was plenty of consultation ahead.
However, he said whatever the final distribution model, it was vital businesses had a key role in shaping the projects that would be supported in Wales.
The planned fund is effectively the successor to EU structural funding that is currently provided to some of the most deprived areas of the UK, for which Wales receives around 13% of the total.
Mr Cairns said: “Our manifesto committed to creating a UK Shared Prosperity Fund. We want to develop a scheme that will respond to the needs of business and supports them in growing the economy and help deliver our Industrial Strategy. The UK’s exit from the EU provides us with an opportunity to reconsider how funding for growth across the UK is designed and delivered.”
He said he was also frustrated that, three years after then Chancellor George Osborne confirmed a £500m borrowing facility to the Welsh Government to help fund a new M4 Relief Road, the project had yet to start.
He said: “If we don’t [deliver major infrastructure projects], you can bet your bottom dollar that Manchester and Birmingham will do.”
However, he added: “I am optimistic that the city region board will make further progress on additional projects very soon and this shows the potential for the Cardiff Capital Region City Deal and South Wales Metro.
“But whilst this political collaboration is welcome, I want to see the business community more involved.”
Cardiff Breakfast Club is sponsored by the Western Mail, Blake Morgan, Lloyds Banking Group, Effective Communication and Stills Branding