Hywel in Parliament - Debates

Welsh Grand Committee [Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

24th June 2003

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon): I welcome the debate as an opportunity to review the significant progress made in the Welsh economy since 1997. That has happened as a result of the effective strategies pursued by Labour in the UK, the Welsh Assembly and in Labour-led local authorities, in concert with the private sector, education and training providers and in co-operation with the Welsh Development Agency. The great challenge facing us in recent years was, in many ways, simple. How do we transform our economy from one of overdependence on a handful of industries to one of greater diversity and economy of high-value, high-skills, sustainable employment?

It is instructive to focus on my constituency of Aberavon, which is a microcosm of what has been happening throughout Wales and which has already begun to benefit from the greater diversification of its local economy. Between April 1997 and May 2003, it witnessed a fall of 42.9 per cent. in all unemployment. There has been a fall of 79.5 per cent. in youth unemployment and a fall of 90.9 per cent., in long-term unemployment—proof indeed that Labour is working for Aberavon. Similar statistics apply to many, if not all, constituencies in Wales. Until recent decades, Aberavon was heavily dependent on the crucial pillars of coal, steel and petrochemicals. Since 1997, that narrow industrial legacy has been replaced at least in part by a broader, more diverse and sustainable economy. We are pleased that, despite the broadening of the economy, the local steel industry has continued to be sustained and remains a leading employer.

I will concentrate on three strands of diversification in Aberavon. I refer first to leisure and tourism. Many people might not think that they are appropriate subjects, but I shall elaborate on them because they are an important and developing sector. Led by the efforts of the Neath, Port Talbot county borough council, leisure and tourism are becoming major developments throughout the region. In my constituency, the jewel in the crown is Margam park and its castle. As we heard this morning, it hosted the successful eisteddfod last month. Exciting new plans for the park have been developed by the local authority, including a national centre for photography. Elsewhere in the constituency are plans to reclaim the historic Brunel dock in Briton Ferry and to enhance the Aberavon seafront with a new world-class art gallery, a Guggenheim for Wales, and build on the success of Glyncorrwg ponds by expanding the leisure and tourist facilities throughout the whole Aberavon valley.

The recently published Bevan foundation report on the future of valley communities entitled ''Ambitions for the Future'', which I sponsored along with several parliamentary colleagues and two local authorities, highlights the importance of tourism and leisure in the renewal of valley communities. It is gratifying that the report has been warmly welcomed by the First Minister and the new Labour Member of the Assembly for the Rhondda, Leighton Andrews, who initiated a short debate in the Assembly on the matter.

It is heartening to remind ourselves that the first initiative in diversification in valley economies towards leisure and tourism throughout all the south Wales valleys occurred under a Labour Government in the early 1970s, when the Afan Argoed country park was developed alongside the Welsh Miners museum, both of which are continuing to prosper, although they would welcome further investment.

Calls for major developments in the heritage field to assist economic regeneration are to be welcomed. Following the Bevan foundation report, proposals for a people's history museum in the valleys by Assembly Member Huw Lewis, and a national heritage centre proposed yesterday by Geoff Mungham, a Cardiff academic, in The Western Mail, are also to be welcomed. On a personal note, as the chair of the South Wales coalfield collection advisory committee at Swansea university, I propose that a national conference be held to examine those and other proposals with a view to their implementation in the coming decade.

Diversification is also reaching unusual areas that have a bearing on the Welsh economy, such as Welsh rugby. The imaginative initiative of Aberavon rugby football club under the wise and enterprising leadership of its managing director, Andrew John, is linking into rugby league and other enterprises, which is of mutual benefit. It makes commercial sense and provides a pointer to the way in which sport, leisure and tourism can be major contributors to the Welsh economy in unusual domains.

Sport is often wrongly seen as being of only limited and narrow value, and located exclusively within the voluntary sector. Of course, the voluntary sector plays a critical role in the social economy. Co-operative ventures including a new credit union in my constituency, the Avon community credit union, have played a vital role in regeneration. Other local voluntary organisations such as Macmillan Cancer Relief, Mencap and the Port Talbot Muslim welfare association all play a vital role in building the social capacity on which our local economy and public services depend.

The second strand on which I wish to focus is the recently developed Baglan energy park and Llandarcy urban village—both excellent initiatives involving public-private partnerships in the wake of careful and considered exit strategies by BP in co-operation with local government, the Welsh Government and the UK Government. All of that has been achieved since 1997. The General Electric gas-fired power station at Baglan and the Prince's Trust work-life balance experiment at Llandarcy are both models of good practice for developing the new Welsh economy and a new living and learning community. A nearby Shaw Trust centre assists people with disabilities, and the proposed Llandarcy sports and living academy will add to those developments.

I turn to the steel industry, which continues to be of vital and strategic value to Wales, the UK, and the European Union. Notwithstanding the unnderstandable concerns for the future of steel plants elsewhere in the UK, the recent positive investment announcement for Port Talbot is testimony to local skills, commitment, and the collaborative approach of management and unions. It also owes much to the supportive actions of Government at UK level, at Welsh Assembly Government level, and at local government level. The recent £75 million investment in the new blast furnace following the tragedy of 2001 is testimony to the local skills, dedication, partnership and support by Government.

I have been greatly encouraged by the new Corus appointments. I recently met the new chairperson, Jim Leng, and the new chief executive officer, Philippe Varin. Both impressed me with their desire to have an open and collaborative approach to Government, and by their commitment to building confidence and morale in the UK and in Holland. I was pleased to note that the leading steel union, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, and its equivalent in Holland, have formally welcomed the new appointments, their new style of running the company, and their desire to create a common, open culture within Corus and an open relationship with Government. Last week, with my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside, I visited the Dutch Parliament, and the Corus plant at Ijmuiden. I was very impressed by the desire of senior management, workplace representatives and politicians to improve relationships between our two countries after the difficulties earlier this year. Steel production in Wales can only benefit from such a new atmosphere. It is gratifying to know that in both Wales and Holland there is a common commitment to the long-term strategic role of the industry; a general commitment to environmental improvement; vigilance on world overcapacity, US protectionism and EU enlargement; agreement on the desirability of social partnerships - particularly a close and open working relationship with Government; and a commitment to high-knowledge, high-skills education alongside a strong commitment to research and development.

Most of all, I welcome the recognition that there is a challenging business environment locally and globally that can only be addressed through a combination of the Labour watchwords of fairness, efficiency and enterprise. The people of Aberavon, and of Wales, know that Labour Governments at local, Wales and UK levels, are addressing their skills needs, their employment needs and their community needs, their employment needs and their community needs. Much has been achieved since 1997, but more needs to be achieved through a more diverse, sustainable economy for Wales. That will be achieved by Labour.

I conclude by urging the Secretary of State to support my plea to locate the next meeting of this Committee at Margam park in my constituency. What better way to follow up the warm sentiments that he expressed in support of the achievements there last month?

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