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Mr Griffiths, your carrier bags are suffocating our economy!

November 4th, 2011

For many years it was the case that Wales led the way in proactively encouraging development and the jobs that this could bring. While England and its planning system wrapped itself up in red tape, I was proud to be able to say that the Welsh approach was a simple and pragmatic one of supporting development unless there were reasons not to.

This mantra was not cast in policy. It didn’t need to be. The economic impacts of the 1980s closures of the mines sparked a realisation that Wales needed jobs from other sources.

As Wales’s economy rebounded however, the benefits of new development and the investment and jobs that it brings seem to have to be forgotten by some local authorities and certainly by the Welsh Government.

When the banking crisis hit in 2007 Scotland was quick to declare itself ‘open for business’ and dictats were sent to Chief Planners across the nation to ensure that new investment was received favourably. In England, new planning guidance was consulted upon and then issued, through PPS4, to support new economic development and subsequent ministerial statements have underlined the presumption in favour of development.

In Wales? Nothing. At the Planning conference in Cardiff in June 2009 I don’t recall Jane Davidson, the then Environment Minister in Wales, making any mention of the economic crisis or the role of planning in helping to address it. Indeed, speaking about this later with a WAG employee, I was told in no uncertain terms that economic development and planning were different departments!

Over the last three years there have been calls from many in the development sector for the Welsh Government to make some form of positive statement to encourage new economic development in Wales.

Instead, all we got were new rules on sustainability that, while laudable in principle, increased building costs for developers and therefore placed Wales at a further economic disadvantage from the rest of the UK.

In February Eluned Morgan, highlighted what we have all been saying for an age – ‘ It’s the economy, stupid’.

Certainly, reading through the press releases of the Welsh Government over the past year, one would have thought that the economy is fine and that the key political issues of the day were how to look after our pet rabbits (Yes, they have done a 36 page report on this), carrier bags, smacking our children and giving more powers to the Assembly.

Yesterday, some major wind energy companies hit the press with complaints about how difficult it was to negotiate the planning system and invest in Wales. One of the companies highlighted that the system was lacking in clarity, was “confused” and “investors could ultimately turn to alternative markets where there is greater certainty, either elsewhere in the UK, in Europe or beyond”. Harsh criticism, but, as much as I regret saying it, probably fairly leveled.

There is often a warning on the side of carrier bags reminding users to beware of suffocation. Perhaps the Welsh Government should heed this advice and give the development sector the oxygen it desperately needs.