New Welsh Secretary writes about his priorities since his appointment to the Cabinet
Opinion piece published in the Sunday Times on 27 March 2016
When the phone rang last Saturday and the Prime Minister invited me to become the new Secretary of State for Wales, I knew straight away what I wanted to do with the job.
I have one outstanding priority: building a strong Welsh economy so that more companies invest here, businesses grow and more people across the whole of Wales can benefit from the security of a stable job.
We do that by working together.
Less than ten days ago, Cardiff Capital Region secured a City Deal. A game-changing move that means more than £1.2bn investment in return for better transport connections like a South Wales Metro; increased house building and a high-tech software academy . All of this promises to transform Cardiff and propel it into the premier league of capital cities .
This only happened because – even though we are just weeks away from an election – politicians put aside party political differences for the greater good.
Ten local authorities, the Welsh Government and the UK Government worked together over several months to develop a bold and innovative vision which UK Government could not refuse .
Building on the Chancellor’s commitment made in the Budget, the next priority is a growth deal for North Wales and a City Deal for Swansea.
The first thing I did on becoming Secretary of State was to ask my officials to arrange a round-table meeting in North Wales this Wednesday with business leaders, representatives of local authorities and higher education to kick start discussions around a growth deal. My North Wales-born number two, Guto Bebb is a natural champion for the region and he will in addition ensure that North Wales gets the best from being part of the Northern Powerhouse - that that economic unit which now stretches from North Wales to Newcastle. People’s jobs and lives aren’t governed by local authority boundaries and Cheshire and Merseyside have strong links with North Wales. Guto will ensure those work to the advantage of North Wales.
I want to see the same spirit of cooperation and focus on outcomes in a North Wales growth deal that we saw in Cardiff.
We don’t yet know what the outcome will be. But big headline announcements like the one we saw in Cardiff didn’t happen overnight. They are the result of months of patient work. The job of Secretary of State is to convene the willing – sometimes the unwilling – but in all cases the capable to drive these projects on and put the elements of a deal in place.
The Secretary of State for Wales is there to be the voice of Wales in Westminster. It means much more than speaking up for Wales at the Prime Minister’s Cabinet once a week .In practice, my ministerial team and I have a warrant to bang on Whitehall doors and make sure UK Government departments are delivering for Wales.
A strong Secretary of State for Wales makes sure that the UK Government delivers for Wales.
Let me give you three recent examples. The Chancellor announced in the Budget that tolls on the Severn Bridge will be halved in 2018 – a measure welcomed by commuters and businesses in south east Wales and the west of England.
Broadcasting is another area that comes under central Government control. The BBC faces tremendous pressure to cut costs and S4C – which receives the majority of its funding from the licence fee – is no exception to that. We have found a way to protect S4C’s funding for a year. Both Guto Bebb, my new Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and myself are Welsh speakers. We both value these services and want to see our native language flourish. .
Let’s take another big Welsh issue – mobile phone reception. This week I gathered the country’s biggest mobile operators together at Gwydyr House in London to see how we can tackle patchy coverage in rural areas of Wales, and ensure the have-nots can access voice and data services without interruption.
As part of the Budget the UK Government announced a relaxation on mobile phone mast heights in England. With the support of the mobile phone industry, I am now asking the Welsh Government to consider a similar move so we can boost voice and data services. Reliable 3G and 4G mobile phone reception isn’t some kind of nice-to-have facility; businesses rely on it and we should expect to have it. Modern Wales is entitled to modern infrastructure.
People in Wales care about what happens on their doorsteps. Jobs, public services and opportunities for our children matter. I share that view. I grew up in Wales, studied there and my father was a welder at Port Talbot. I aim to support businesses in all sectors and communities. My own career took me into the private sector where I worked as a business development consultant for a bank, backing enterprising individuals and companies that wanted to grow in Wales. I understand that for any business in places like Newtown or Fishguard, they have to win new contracts and customers - day in, day out. It is the risk takers with ambition that will help build and expand the Welsh economy. I understand their needs, and will do all I can as Secretary of State for Wales to help them fulfil their ambition.
When it comes to the business of Government, I have a good relationship with the First Minister. We have spoken this week and we both want to deliver what works for Wales. As an Assembly member for 11 years I can claim some reasonable understanding of how Cardiff Bay operates and I will use that insight to avoid any needless friction. I well know that arcane arguments about the constitution aren’t big talking points in the restaurants of Rhyl or the pubs of Pontypridd.
What I want to see are the practical and pragmatic partnerships that land investment deals like Aston Martin Lagonda in St Athan, and TVR in Ebbw Vale. I believe that Wales staying in a reformed Europe will help companies like Airbus in North Wales thrive. The businesses I speak to across Wales - or those thinking of coming here - tell me they want that unique single market. That’s why as Secretary of State for Wales I will be making the case that Wales is better off inside a reformed European Union.
My job is to ensure the UK Government works in partnership with the Welsh Government to deliver more stability, security and opportunity for our working people across the whole of the country. This is the mission of a 21st century Secretary of State for Wales.