As 2013 draws to a close, we can look ahead to 2014 with renewed optimism. By sticking to our economic plan on the big issues that matter to the people of Wales, I am proud to say that we are heading in the right direction.
Over the last three years, this Government has progressively put in place robust measures to help rebuild and nurture the economy. We must never forget that we inherited an appalling legacy – one which has called upon us to take incredibly hard decisions. I know that some of these decisions will have affected you personally or professionally. But only by holding our nerve have we been able to rise to the challenge and become the fastest growing economy in the Western world.
Our consistency in tackling the deficit, while making the UK a great place to do business means that, not only are we seeing an economy that is growing, but that growth is gathering pace.
In Wales, we have seen companies consistently demonstrate that they aren’t simply surviving, but are innovating and thriving. We have record numbers of people in work and, over the last year, Wales has seen the largest percentage increase in private sector employment of any region in the UK.
In 2013, the UK Government underpinned its ambition to re-balance the Welsh economy and grow the private sector with major investment in infrastructure.
From the £250 million investment in a new prison in Wrexham, to support for the financing of Wylfa Newydd nuclear power station, we have shown our commitment to improving Britain’s infrastructure which we believe is essential to delivering long-term, balanced economic growth.
We also know that IT infrastructure is a fundamental part of our economy. That is why we have provided almost £57 million to the Welsh Government in order to ensure that broadband access is available to homes and businesses in some of the hardest-to-reach parts of Wales. I am delighted to see that the roll-out is already well underway.
More and more communities are benefitting from the deployment of around 3,000 new fibre broadband cabinets around Wales, and businesses in our Super Connected Cities, Cardiff and Newport, can now apply for individual grants of up to £3,000 to cover the costs of installing faster and better broadband.
In the very near future, around 100,000 homes and businesses in Wales will have access to superfast broadband as a direct result of this project.
We have also continued to demonstrate that this Government is firmly on the side of business. The Chancellor’s Budget and Autumn Statement this year delivered policies that will boost business and consumer confidence here in Wales; and the launch of our Small Business: GREAT Ambition strategy was a clear demonstration of our commitment to empowering small businesses.
In 2013, we announced that we will devolve a package of tax and borrowing powers to the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government. This will give them the tools to invest in Wales and for the first time will make the Assembly and the Welsh Government directly accountable to the people who elect them.
We published a draft Wales Bill shortly before Christmas as a first step to implementing these changes. I intend to bring forward the legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows once the Bill has been scrutinised in draft.
However, we don’t want to wait until the Welsh Government’s new borrowing powers come on stream before pressing ahead with much-needed improvements to the M4 around Newport. So, in November, I was delighted to welcome the Prime Minister to Wales to announce that the Welsh Government will be able to use its existing limited borrowing powers to get the M4 improvement scheme underway as soon as possible.
During that visit, the Prime Minister also announced that Wales will host the 2014 NATO Summit. This will be one of the largest international summits ever hosted in the UK and will be the first NATO summit held here since 1990.
Bringing NATO to Wales will give us an opportunity to highlight what Wales, its people and its businesses have to offer to the world. We will have an opportunity to shine on the international stage, and we must ensure that we send world leaders home with a clear and positive message about everything Wales has to offer.
In 2014, we will also come together as a nation to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Over a four year programme of events, we will honour the lives and bravery of all those who served in the war, both in the military and on the home front.
Constitutionally, 2014 will be the most important year for the United Kingdom in over 300 years. In just nine months time, the people of Scotland will be asked to make an historic choice between a continuing Union – staying within the UK – or going it alone. It is a decision which has important and far-reaching implications for all parts of the UK, including Wales.
The UK Government is making a strong, positive and, I believe, a convincing case to the Scottish people for Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom. As a proud Welshman, and a Unionist, I am campaigning vigorously for Scotland to vote for a strong and continuing Union.
In 2014, we will continue to manage our economy carefully, to create jobs, and to stimulate the growth Wales still desperately needs. If Wales is to succeed, it needs both the United Kingdom and Welsh Governments to work closely together, and that is what I am determined to do.
As we enter the New Year, we do so with the confidence that comes from pursuing the right policies to ensure that Wales, and the UK as a whole, can succeed in the global race.
Amongst the many resolutions that will be made on January 1st, let us make one for Wales. Let us start 2014 with a resolution to embrace the future with realism and optimism, and to continue to work together to sustain the good progress we have made on the challenges we have faced, and that we have come through, together.
I join with my Ministerial colleagues at the Wales Office in wishing everyone a happy and prosperous New Year.