A warm welcome awaits quality industries in the Valleys of St David's country, reports Charles Darwent.
Dropping from the A470 into Abercynon, the Cynon Valley road snakes its way through shattered buildings, past cinder heaps and discarded machinery. The uninitiated traveller may conclude, not unreasonably, that he is looking at a redundant colliery: but he will be wrong. A glance at newly painted signposts reveals that he is passing through something called Navigation Park. The valleys of South Wales are not without their surprises.
The truth, of course, is that until recently the site in question was called Abercynon Colliery: it is just that Navigation Park sounds rather nicer, a point not lost on its co-baptists, the Welsh Development Agency (WDA) and Cynon Valley Borough Council. Such a rechristening may sound trivial enough, until you consider the statistics. Wales, under the latest WDA regime, now attracts somewhere in the region of 30% of all inward investment into the UK, in spite of having only 5% of the working population. Last year that inward investment added up to something like £1 billion. While manufacturing employment in 1990 fell nationally by 0.7%, it rose by 2.5% in the principality: notable triumphs included the luring of German electrical giant Bosch into the region, in the face of fierce competition from other development agencies (DAs) in Britain and elsewhere.
Those baptismal signboards at Navigation Park play a small but telling part in Wales's very own economic miracle. What they demonstrate is a distinctly unquangolike image consciousness, a quality which is part of a comprehensive seachange in the WDA and its valley partners. In a region rich in potential greenfield sites, the reclamation of Navigation Park may seem wilful, but the WDA marketeers are well aware that Japanese micronics firms are more likely to run up factories on a reclaimed (and renamed) colliery site than next door to one that has been left to rot.
Equally, the agency has taken on board other truths: building a factory and then touting for tenants is not as rewarding as finding a tenant and then building a factory as a joint venture; giving money to potentially fallible start-ups is less secure than giving it to proven projects for expansion.
"When DAs were set up," notes WDA chairman Dr Gwyn Jones, "they were, by and large, socially driven, with the result that they were largely unsuccessful. People were putting up factories, but they were left standing empty. What we have increasingly come to realise is that agencies have to be run commercially, that factories have to be built where there is demand, not simply where there is need."
Such realisations have left the WDA a puzzling beast, part public body, part merchant bank, by definition prone to the twin shibboleths of Thatcherism (corporatism, interventionism) but speaking with a fluent High-Tory vocabulary. If this sounds like a political photofit of former Welsh Secretary Peter Walker, or his protege and present Welsh Secretary David Hunt, it is more than coincidence: the WDA was part of Walker's personal portfolio, is part of Hunt's, and bears a marked political resemblance to both. "Wet", however, is clearly not a synonym for "ineffectual", as Jones's own analysis of the WDA's transformation shows. "Until the beginning of the '80s", he says, "the WDA was essentially reactive: we would enter the proverbial beauty parades, and win or lose as the case might be. Two years ago we decided to become proactive. Anyone can use that word, but we actually DID something: we brought in completely new blood to our sales team, made a team with experience in private industry. They don't wait for foreign firms to come to Wales. They take Wales to them."
A sterling example of this new-found entrepreneurial fierceness is the WDA's Eurolink programme which has singled out four European Community regions - Rhone-Alpes, Baden Wuerttemberg, Lombardy and Catalonia - for what is essentially a sustained networking offensive. The WDA's fluent German-speaking Man-in-Stuttgart plays industrial cupid, matching, for example, the components requirements of German manufacturers with Welsh component suppliers, setting up meetings, offering guidance through the bureaucratic minefield of quality standards and the arcana of Euro-marketing.
This dovetails nicely with the WDA's change in domestic strategy, away from offering business advice and support to small-time start-up operations (now catered for by local enterprise agencies, claims Jones) to suggesting expansion plans for mid-size firms with a proven track record - "inventive engineering companies in the valleys who want to sell their product in Italy", in Jones's words.