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Anthony Hunt column: What we must do in the year ahead

11.05.2020

Our thoughts at the moment are principally with those in our communities who have been most affected by the coronavirus, whether it’s through the loss of a loved one, or from the impact of the lockdown on their livelihood or business.

As the Cardiff Capital Region, we must also think about what we can do to help, and how we can step in where we have an ability to influence things. In particular, we must think about what we can do that is distinct from what other people are doing, so we don’t duplicate or compete with things that the UK Government, Welsh Government or local authorities are doing in their areas. There are some things that we can do very well at our level; some things that local authorities can do better at their level; and some things that the UK Government and Welsh Government can do best at their level.

In the situation created by Covid-19, we need to pause for thought. There are three strands to what we do as a city region, and each of them is affected by the pandemic.

Firstly, there are the specialist areas where we have a competitive advantage as a region. Compound semiconductors is one such area; medtech is another, which is very much in focus at the moment. The Medi Park at Cwmbran, based on the new Grange University Hospital and featuring a hub for research and development into new drugs and medical technologies, was due to open next year but has been made ready to use this year to help us tackle the virus.

Another strand is where we’re looking to bring on infrastructure, whether it’s physical infrastructure such as transport, or digital. The experience of the lockdown, with so many of us working remotely, has highlighted the importance of having the best digital infrastructure that we can if we want to build the competitive and resilient region we aspire to.

On transport, we don’t yet know how our recent experience is going to affect people’s attitudes to travel and public transport as we come out the lockdown. We may see many more people walking or cycling as they observe social distancing. We need to keep a close look and remain agile in our response to changing demands in our communities.

Finally, there is the foundational economy, which has come to the fore in recent weeks, particularly the care sector. The crisis has had a massive impact on SMEs across our region, and we need to make sure that we give them sufficient consideration. We need to talk to them about their concerns and priorities and how we can best help them. There are a number of assumptions we might have made pre-coronavirus about people’s ability to borrow which we can’t make post-coronavirus.

Our approach to the foundational economy can be genuinely transformational, or it can become one of those phrases that are parroted but don’t actually change the way we work. Studies show that the most deprived communities, within our region and globally, are the most vulnerable to the health and economic impacts of the virus.

Our region is different from many others in that we don’t have a single metropolitan centre; we have the cities along the M4, then we have the rural areas and the valley towns. That makes our work with the foundational economy key; ensuring local supply chains are maximised and that there is good employment close to home for all communities.

The Welsh Government are keen to work with us on this, but we need to flesh out in the Capital Region what we can do to bring on the foundational economy. The care sector, for example, badly needs transformation because at the moment it’s built on low wages.

As the new chair of the Cardiff Capital Region’s Regional Cabinet I am optimistic about the future. The leaders of our 10 local authorities, the City Deal staff, and the members of our expert panels, all work together well as a team, leaving politics and egos aside. We are a small region on an international scale, and we need to work together or we will miss our opportunities.

The foundation that we build as a partnership is going to be important not just for the City Deal; we all hope this is the start of wider long-term regional working, and that we can really make a difference and make the systemic change that parts of our region need.

We’re the gardeners in this, not the garden; we’re trying to create a situation where the region can flourish. If our businesses thrive and grow, and our communities become more resilient and prosperous, in the conditions that we have created for them, then we will have achieved what we set out to do. The pandemic throws up some fresh challenges, but doesn’t alter the fundamentals of our situation or what we need to do to improve it.

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