How to waste public money – let the Welsh Government Economy & Enterprise Minister invest it for you

We’re chasing the wrong Dragon in Wales at the moment, and it’s high time it stopped.

Today we’ve heard of yet another business in Wales that had recently announced a major funding injection from Welsh Government and is now on the brink of going ‘pop’. Universal Engineering in Llantrisant announced with great Ministerial fanfare that they had negotiated £2M of public funding to support their expansion as they were so confident of the future. That was the middle of February this year. They have called in the administrators and it’s only August.

This raises two important points. Firstly, what, if any due diligence was undertaken by Welsh Government officials in making this decision, and how honest the grant applicant was in relation to the health of the business at the time of the application.

When I’ve previously been critical of this type of investment, I’ve been chided by some who suggested that this risk taking by government is what they should be encouraged to do, not be cowed into a risk averse corner.

The investments are wrong for two key reasons:

1- more often than not the public money is not being invested alongside risk capital, from private investors or institutions. These guys get it wrong too, I agree, but they’re often risking their own money in the deal; they have ‘skin in the game’. Their reputation or kids inheritance will depend on them choosing winners over losers.

2- the investments are made on the basis of jobs created. This may create PR opportunities for the Minister, but do very little to generate wealth in our communities. Jobs will be developed on the basis of wealth being created, not the other way around.

Those who follow these public investments will have noticed a number that have gone to the wall recently. These failures are dreadful news for the employees of the Companies themselves, and the local area in which they’re situated. The fact that our public monies are also being lost alongside the jobs just makes matters worse.

Mrs. Hart, you prided yourself in being an interventionalist when you announced your impending retirement recently. Well it doesn’t look like it has worked. You’ve either got an incompetent team of senior officials in your department or you’re making over-riding judgements from your high office. Either way, save us some money between now and May 2016, and go now. And on your way out take the bureaucrats who made these godawful decisions with you.


#BarryIs part 2

Places in Wales – They used to be something – they used to mean something – they were where they were for a reason – they mattered more than just a place where you lived. We didn’t really care if they were a village, a town or a city; we cared that they were a community that sustained families, economy, work, education, recreation, wellbeing (in its broadest context) & spirit.

Each place had its individual spirit.

Big places were split into smaller bits. Each of those smaller bits had their own spirit too. A sort of sub-spirit.

And that spirit was clear. For some it was a genteel spirit; for others a harder edged working spirit; and for some towns it was something much more distinct.

If you were to ask someone from a place to articulate its spirit 150 years ago, that would have been easy – many of those places were just emerging at the time, they were full of pioneers; the people who created these places. They knew what the spirit was, they were it.

As the places grew, the spirit changed slightly; it grew with it. The pioneers were being replaced by people who rooted these places (let’s call them the rooters). These were second and third generation ‘locals’ who came from those places. They added history, folklore & their own family and community values. They developed the civic infrastructure: the schools, the churches, the welfare halls. They built on what the pioneers started. They knew what the spirit was, they were it.

Then something happened.

It wasn’t intentionally bad.

But it definitely wasn’t good either.

Something happened that stopped the spirit of the place developing – we allowed bureaucracy to get its cloying hands on the development of our places. Locals let the bureaucrats take decisions on their behalf, whether they were local politicians, council officers, or those with some sort of civic authority. The locals abdicated their responsibilities for developing their own village or town, and left it to others. This coincided with a sense of self, over community.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a point where systems and rules ensure civic life works, and works safely and to the average benefit of all… The thing is, when it comes to spirit of a place, to its generative ability, bureaucracy has no place.

The place you were from helped to describe you; it helped to ground you, and whether you ran away at the first opportunity or stayed there for a lifetime, the spirit stayed with you.

In Wales, these separately identifiable places weren’t isolationist – far from it. People from one place knew people from other places, and if they didn’t know them, they certainly knew someone who did. The concept of six degrees of separation just doesn’t translate to Wales; in Wales it’s one or two – sometimes you need to look a bit harder to see it, than would have been the case a hundred or even fifty years ago, but those strong linkages between places are there, and therein lies one of Wales’ greatest untapped assets.

Which brings me on to the reason behind this blog, and perhaps even some action. I feel like it’s action on a guerrilla scale, so that’s kinda cool 🙂

This constant onslaught regarding the power of cities, and City Regions (we have two or maybe three here in Wales, and some are hoping North East Wales will hang on the shirt-tails of the Northern Powerhouse too) misses the point – it ignores this massive asset we have here in Wales that we’re connected. I think there’s an alternative, and it lies within our communities – it’s emerging, and there’s little officialdom can do about it.

When I recently visited Ebbw Vale (Ebbw Vale Institute to be precise), I met the former MP for the area, Dai Davies. I started my Indycube spiel…. change the way Wales does business; too fond of government handouts; blah; blah, and he stopped me.. He said “Let me tell you, Ebbw Vale built the world! We produced the steel that built the ships, the bridges, many of the world’s fixed assets.” Our towns evoked a sense of pride. People like Dai still have that pride for their place, but as those old stories fade, if we’re not careful so with that, will go that sense of pride.

Barry is an interesting place… In 1881 the ‘beautiful little country village of Barry’ had 85 residents living there. More surprisingly, they lived in 17 dwellings. Today – there’s close to 50,000 residents living here, and the house count continues to climb.

Barry grew very quickly – when David Davies got fed up with the Marquis of Bute overcharging for poor service to the Coal Barons at Cardiff Docks, he did something about it – he built his own (I’m riding fast and furious over history here, but hey feel free to add in the comments). The building of the docks was the building of Barry – the town exploded into vibrant life – by 1913 it was the biggest coal exporting dock in the world – I wonder how it must have felt to have been part of those pioneering years? I wonder

Many of our Welsh towns/cities are in the process of regeneration. Some are seemingly further ahead than others, but the underlying focus of their Renaissance seems to be flats, shops, and the occasional ummm, unmmm….. no I can’t think of anything else. It’s all flats and shops. The upshot is we’re ending up in places that are indistinguishable from the place up the road – they’re bland and uninspiring. Worse still, they do very little (read nothing) to change the economic well being of the area. It’s not regeneration at all. It’s degeneration.

Why is that? My view is we’ve lost that pioneering spirit – we’re caught up in claptrap and ‘echo chamber’ speak, and very few people are shouting out.

What if we took the ‘re’ out of regeneration, and instead of using the current everyday levers of change to make things happen, we just started with an engaged conversation or two?

So here’s the rub. If you want to improve a place, there are things you can do…

1- lobby for a solution. There are lots of very well meaning folk who put a lot of energy into trying to persuade and lobby the powers that be, that their idea is worth pursuing.

2- become a local politician – and get lobbied by those well meaning folk, and if you agree (or find it politically expedient) pass it on to the officers of the local authority.

3- become an officer in a local authority – you could really make a difference here – but the local authority is the last place to take risks & be brave. You manage the risks into mediocrity and ultimate failure. You say ‘No’ far, far too often.

4- JFDI (however small the ‘it’ might be) – you just never know. There’s a good chance some things will fail…. Lots probably, but the few things that succeed could well be the pioneering changes that’ll last generations. Or if you don’t feel like pioneering, what things need ‘rooting’ in?

So, what is the great idea, that’s so easy to implement, and could re-instil a sense of pride back into Barry in the first instance? I’ve got some ideas to share, but more importantly, I’d really like to hear other people’s ideas too.

So, if you’re a 2015 pioneer, or a rooter, and are interested in true regeneration in Barry, come & join us for a couple of hours

What we’d like you to bring…

something to sit on
a flask of your favourite hot beverage
something to eat, that ideally you’d like to share between the group
your passion & your ideas

I can’t promise that it’ll turn into anything. I don’t for one moment pretend that this is a democratic meeting. But Barry needs to regain its pioneering spirit. Are you in?

Why Mark Hooper, Founder of Indycube CIC and co-founder of Indycube Ventures LLP is voting Plaid Cymru on May 7th.

This General Election is shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable in recent memory, and from all sides of the political spectrum, business leaders, large and small are keen to tell us why they’re backing one large Westminster based Party, or the other. There was even a group, imploring us to vote Liberal Democrat recently.

Well I run a business, and I don’t agree with their verdicts. Why does my opinion differ and why should that matter? Because, I run a business in Wales, that supports other Welsh businesses to grow our economy, generate wealth, and create high quality local jobs. Indycube now has twenty coworking spaces across the length and breadth of Wales, with a further ten planned for the remainder of 2015. We’re working as hard in some of our hard pressed communities as we are in our cities. Over a thousand people working in small and micro-businesses have used our spaces over the past five years, and I’ve got to know most of these business owners personally. I’ve got a clear idea as to what they need, and as importantly, what they don’t.

The biggest single thing they need is to be believed in. We need our politicians to have faith that the future prosperity of our Country will come from within, and not without. Reliance on the Barnett formula for delivering money from Westminster to Cardiff Bay; incentivising foreign corporations to base themselves in Wales and profiteer off the back of our workforce in the blinkered pursuit of jobs; and, forever following the myth of ‘best practice’, have all failed before, and will fail again. This isn’t the way to build a prosperous (not just in terms of money) Wales.

Our politicians must believe that Wales’ biggest assets are its people. Leanne Wood has stated just that, time and time again. You know what? I believe her. If we can’t rely on Westminster parties to deliver for Wales, then let’s rely on ourselves. When Leanne kicked off the first leadership debate saying that she was interested in Wales, it was music to my ears – that was what I was interested in. If more politicians are sent to Westminster with a clear mandate to deliver for their local community, rather than tow a Westminster party line, the better it will be for Wales.

Business people are often derided as being selfish. I run a social enterprise that has NEVER taken or requested any grant funding – in fact we pay taxes back in to the pot. Like many businesses in Wales (whether formally a social enterprise like us, or not), business people care. If they were only interested in chasing money, they’d probably locate elsewhere. The value of family, community and the fantastic country-scape in which we live are also of significant value to us.

When you run your own business, it’s important that you’re ambitious for it to succeed. When you see an NHS that is being negatively compared to the one across the border; when you see an education system that is missing the opportunity to challenge all our children to become the creative leaders of the future; and when you see far too many children living in poverty (when the UK is the sixth richest economy in the world), it’s apparent that we need politicians who will take on these challenges in a way that suits our Country. We’re a small country, but that is our strength – we can move quickly, try things out, fail and learn, be creative and most of all, be ambitious for ourselves. For Wales to remain so poor that it once again qualified for Structural Assistance from the EU is an embarrassment at best, or more accurately an absolute travesty for those families who are destined to spend a lifetime in poverty.

Most people will have made up their mind which way they’re going to vote on Thursday. Lots will be voting for something they believe in; lots will be voting for the first time; lots will be voting for a different Party than they did last time; lots will be voting for the same Party they always have; and, lots won’t vote at all. In Wales, for far too long, we’ve allowed one Party to dominate. The Welsh ‘block’ vote has kept the Labour Party forceful in Westminster, and of course more recently, in Cardiff Bay. And yet, Wales remains one of the poorest regions in Europe – their centrally controlled policies just haven’t benefitted us, here in Wales. The old truism of putting a Labour rosette on a donkey in some parts of Wales, and they’d still get in needs to be laid to waste – our children and grandchildren can’t afford for us to miss the opportunity for better. The Conservatives don’t get Wales, and probably never will, and the Lib Dems have lost their reforming zeal, in a barely concealed attempt to appeal to the two biggest parties as a suitable suitor in coalition. Neither of them will deliver for Wales, and our future.

I believe in Wales; I believe in my community; I’m fed up of Wales being taken for granted. Plaid’s policies don’t 100% match my views but they’re much more ambitious for Wales than the rest, and that’s massive. That’s why I’m voting Plaid Cymru on May 7th.

Mark Hooper