What’s in the Swansea Bay City Deal for you?
This week I have been trying to find out, but struggled to reach beyond the glossy advertising.
The big accountability problem with public-private deals like this is ‘commercial confidentiality’, which means that often elected councillors let alone the general public, don’t know how sensibly our money is being spent.
First stop, the Swansea Bay City Region website, www.swanseabaycityregion.com. Oh! Nothing there but this message:
Our site has moved!
Please visit our new site:
So I click through, to a website which conveys aspirations as facts.
£1.3 billion investment!
£1.8 billion boost to the economy!
11 high spec projects!
The exclamation marks are mine, but justified, I think, to indicate the lack of explanation on this website about how the figures were calculated.
The home page has four headings above these claims: Economic Acceleration; Energy; Life Science and Well-being; and Smart Manufacturing.
Under ‘Economic Acceleration’ we have buzz words like ‘state of the art’, ‘centre of excellence’ and ‘next generation services’. It’s about ‘digital’, the aspiration that the Swansea Bay region – Neath Port Talbot, Swansea, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire – becomes a digital nirvana. I read that a transatlantic fibre optic cable will come to Oxwich Bay on Gower and a cloud-based Data Centre at the Port Talbot Waterfront Enterprise Zone will be developed. When? Who is paying for them? No data on that.
S4C’s new HQ at Yr Egin in Carmarthen is included under ‘Economic Acceleration’. I have no issue at all with S4C having a presence at the University of Wales Trinity St David, but could it be that the city deal vision is too heavily based on the construction of buildings? According to the website, for example, in Swansea there will be ‘flexible and affordable’ office space, ‘incubation space and co-working areas’, and ‘conference facilities and major event space’.
At Baglan, the aspiration is for a centre with a ‘range of laboratories and office space’ for the scientific community and industry. The centre ‘will bring together a range of technical and commercial experts to bridge the gap between research and application of ideas to industry. As a result, the centre will be a vehicle for turning world class data into commercial opportunities, increasing the ability to launch, develop and grow commercial systems and solutions’. Sounds exciting!
Ignoring the Energy and Smart Manufacturing strands for today, we arrive at Life Science and Well-being. This proposes new campuses at Morriston and Singleton hospitals, and a Life Science and Well-being village at Delta Lakes close to the coast in Llanelli, to deliver ‘transformational social and economic benefits’. There is mention of open market housing, a ‘high end hotel’ and a leisure centre as well as a life sciences institute, a care home and sheltered housing.
I’d like to find out more, but here the website falls considerably short. I cannot find any contact details on the site’s main pages. No names, street addresses, telephone numbers, or email addresses. Must be one somewhere, surely? Under ‘About’ there is a recruitment advert, for private-sector representatives on the Swansea Bay City Deal Economic Strategy Board. I click through to the application form, which does have an email address:
So if you are a potential private-sector representative, there is a route to finding out more, but none for the general public.
The information for applicants says that the total investment of some £1.3 billion would be over a period of 15 years. There would be £241m from UK and Welsh Governments; £396m from ‘other public sector funding’ (such as county councils, health boards and universities, I assume) and £637m from the private sector.
The hoped-for £637 million from the private sector suggests to me that the City Deal is a new incarnation of the PFIs (Private Finance Initiatives) and PPPs (Public Private Partnerships) which led to expensive debt weighing down the public sector. ‘Why weren’t the drawbacks obvious at the time?’ one might ask. I’m sure numerous questions were asked, but suggest that confidentiality rules often prevent full answers from being given.
Here’s hoping that the website http://www.swanseabaycitydeal.wales will soon contain more real information so that we the public can discover whether our taxes are being spent effectively. Swansea Bay’s £241 million from governments and £396 million from other public sources is half the almost £1.3 billion for the ‘deal’, and is about 92p for every one of the 693,000 or so adults, children and babies living in Neath Port Talbot, Swansea, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. Not a vast amount per head, admittedly, but a substantial total, too large to be wholly obscured by confidentiality regulations.
If private-sector investment falls short, as it might, then will the public purse be expected to make up the difference? We ought to know that too.