THE WELSH Government has been accused of leading Circuit of Wales promoters ‘up the garden path’ by UKIP Leader Neil Hamilton.
Mr Hamilton’s words followed the revelation that the Welsh Government were not prepared to offer the level of guarantee which it had told the Heads of the Valley Development Corporation it would consider.
In evidence before the Welsh Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee on Monday, the Permanent Secretary to the Welsh Government told surprised AMs that the amount of the guarantee the Welsh Government was actually prepared to consider offering was under one half of that it had told the company it would consider.
In addition, under stiff questioning from Adam Price AM and Neil Hamilton, it emerged that the Welsh Government had ignored advice from the UK Treasury to seek advice from the UK Government infrastructure advisory service and had also failed to tell the company of its bottom line position.
The cross examination of two of the Welsh Government’s most senior civil servants also uncovered that the Welsh Treasury, despite ample notice of the evidence session, were unable to answer the most basic of questions – such as whether officials advising the Welsh Government were aware that the Welsh Government’s guarantees only came into play on completion of the project and whether or not officials handling the project for the Welsh Government had told the Heads of the Valleys Corporation about its changed position on the guarantee.
And the matter was made no clearer by questions directed to the Welsh Government’s Economy and Infrastructure Secretary, Ken Skates on Wednesday (Feb 7). Despite two days having elapsed since senior officials had fobbed off Adam Price and Neil Hamilton with a promise to provide the answers to questions they had failed to address, Mr Skates found himself in the identical position – kicking the can further down the road in the direction of civil servants in Mark Drakeford’s Finance Department.
In addition, despite holding out hope last year that a re-tooled project could receive support in the future, Mr Skates rather firmly closed the door on any prospect of the Welsh Government becoming involved in any racing circuit development.
The lack of preparation in response to questions for which both civil servants and Mr Skates should have been prepared is, perhaps, startling. It would certainly be unfair to suggest that neither civil servants nor Mr Skates wanted to give a straight answer to a straight question because they did not fancy the row that might follow.
Following Mr Skates’ performance, Mr Hamilton said: “Now we know the Labour Government never intended to give the kiss of life to this visionary scheme and transform the poorest part of Wales. They deceived the Circuit’s promoters into spending millions on a finance package that never had a chance of success.
“They deceived the voters of Blaenau Gwent and the northern valleys in last year’s General Election by delaying until after polling day the announcement of their decision to pull the plug.”
Mr Hamilton continued: “Welsh Government constantly moved the goalposts on their proposed guarantee. First, they told the Circuit they wouldn’t guarantee more than 80% of total project costs. That was reduced to 50% but, in truth, they were never prepared to guarantee more than 25%. Their deception is a major scandal. £9.3 million of Welsh taxpayers’ money was wasted because of the Government’s bad faith in negotiations. Worse still, was encouraging false hopes of economic revival in the heads of the valleys only to dash them after the General Election votes were counted.
“Labour politicians should hang their heads in shame and voters should take revenge on these cynics at the next election. UKIP will continue to fight to get the Circuit back on the road. We will fight for the true interests of working people against a Labour Party which has lost touch completely with its roots.”
New drive supports women entrepreneurs
ECONOMY MINISTER, Ken Skates is calling on the business community to support a new initiative aimed at increasing the number of women entrepreneurs in Wales and providing them with the best possible support.
The Welsh Government’s new Supporting Entrepreneurial Women programme was informed by the work of a panel of experts, convened in 2017 to consider how best to encourage, develop and support female entrepreneurship in Wales.
The panel, chaired by Helen Walbey, considered an array of academic evidence and literature on women in entrepreneurship, spoke to a range of businesswomen, representative groups and partner bodies, and aligned its work with the principles of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme which is championed by Be the Spark in Wales.
The result is a new Framework for Supporting Entrepreneurial Women in Wales and a Good Practice Guide to inform how the Welsh Government and business community works to drive the number of women entrepreneurs in Wales.
The Welsh Government have also responded by publishing the Business Wales Action Plan which identifies 10 specific ways in which the Welsh Government and business community can improve. From providing more gender focussed business support and confidence building, increasing the number of female business advisors and mentors in Wales and promoting the career successes of prominent female entrepreneurs including through business awards, the action plan aims to create the right environment in which female entrepreneurs can prosper.
There is also renewed focus on engagement with women entrepreneurs to understand the barriers they face, improved availability of finance options with no restrictions that unfairly affect women, and a Good Practice Guide that encourages business support organisations to adopt ways of working that support female Entrepreneurship.
The Economy Minister launched the Framework, Good Practice Guide and the Action Plan at a celebratory event in Capital Law. This will be followed by regional events, jointly organised by the Welsh Government and Lloyds Bank, to ensure that business groups right across Wales are aware of the new resources and their role in supporting female entrepreneurship.
The Economy Minister said: “The underrepresentation of women both as business owners and at a senior executive level is well evidenced and there is no doubt the gender gap is hindering women from achieving their full economic and personal potential.
“Our Economic Action Plan focuses on creating the right environment to enable entrepreneurs to prosper and grow and obviously this must apply to women, just as much as men.
“The work undertaken by the panel of experts recognised the progress that we as the Welsh Government and business representative groups have made in recent years in supporting female entrepreneurship – but the message is clear. We must do more, and with Brexit presenting challenges of an unprecedented scale, now more than ever we need our best talent around the table.
“I call on the business community and financial institutions to work with us to adopt a more gender focussed approach to their work. I hope they will use our new Framework and Good Practice Guide to ensure they play their part in building an environment where women entrepreneurs are encouraged and properly supported to reach their full potential.“
Jane Hutt, Deputy Minister and Chief Whip said: “All women should be given equal opportunities and representation at the most senior level. Helping to understand and remove barriers that women face in entrepreneurial opportunities will support the potential growth of women in business. Through this support, we hope women will be more fairly represented and can flourish in the business sector.
“Although, there is still so much more we can do to achieve better gender equality, this initiative will help women to achieve their full potential and to move away from the underrepresentation of women at senior roles.”
Local companies aim for export boost
LOCAL food and drink companies are preparing to attend one of the world’s largest food trade events in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, from 17-21 February. Held at the Dubai World Trade Centre, Gulfood will attract over 98,000 visitors over the five days, welcoming more than 5,000 exhibitors from 193 countries showcasing products across 8 primary market sectors.
Supported by the Welsh Government, 14 Welsh companies from across the food and drink sector in Wales will be present under the Cymru/Wales banner all looking to promote their products and increase their export markets.
The Welsh companies exhibiting include Llaeth y Llan/Village Dairy, Rachel’s, Dairy Partners Ltd, Daioni Organic, Fayrefield Foods Ltd, Calon Wen Organic Dairy, The Lobster Pot, Ty Nant Spring Water, Euro Foods Group UK, Prima Foods UK Ltd. Alongside these, representatives from Castle Dairies Ltd, Hybu Cig Cymru/Meat Promotions Wales, Dunbia and Village Bakery Ltd will also form part of the Export Visit.
Lesley Griffiths, Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, believes that it is vital for the industry to take advantage of such opportunities to continue to develop global markets: “Our food and drink sector is one we can rightly be proud of and we need to ensure that everybody knows about it. It is important that we maintain our visibility and showcase our innovative products at key global trade events.
“We are committed to supporting Welsh businesses having a presence at events such as Gulfood, as it is crucial in giving ourselves a strong platform to sell Welsh produce around the world. With Brexit approaching it is more important than ever that we champion Welsh produce and support food and drink businesses in every way we can. We need to help them build relationships with businesses in their sector so they can learn about new technologies, explore foreign markets and be competitive in their industry.”
A company looking to make an impact and will be introducing their Afternoon Tea range at Gulfood is Llanelli’s Prima Foods.
Their classic British gluten-free afternoon tea range features both mixes and ready to bake goods, to include Scones, Choux Pastry and Belgian Chocolate Brownies.
Massimo Bishop-Scott, Head of Innovation at Prima Foods said: “Afternoon teas have seen a bit of a resurgence and are an incredibly popular menu offering. They attract consumers outside the normal lunchtime/dinner eating occasions which provide incremental revenue for restaurants and hotels.
“We spotted that there was a gap for great tasting gluten-free offerings on the afternoon tea menu and set about making products that tasted just as good as the gluten-containing equivalent. A number of our customers in the UK have been so impressed with the taste and texture of our products that they have replaced their existing gluten containing range with our Chefs Promise range.”
One company looking to build on its existing links with the UAE is leading organic milk producer Daioni Organic from Boncath.
In June 2018, they began working with Truebell, their exclusive distributor to the UAE and have launched into Carrefour and Choithrams with other retailers to follow throughout 2019.
In 2018, Daioni launched a new iced coffee latte which they will be presenting at Gulfood for the first time this year.
Chief Operations Officer at Daioni Organic, Daniel Jones said: “We have seen high growth in the overseas markets in the past couple of years, particularly from the Middle East and Asia. We see this expansion as well as our presence at Gulfood, as a great opportunity to enter growing markets and to invest in our existing relationships.”
Construction output falls
RISING costs and uncertainty relating to Brexit are to blame for the sharp drop in output growth in January 2019, the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) has said in response to the latest Purchasing Managers’ Index data (PMI).
The Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS) Construction Purchasing Manager’s Index incorporates survey results provided by construction firms throughout the country.
A reading above fifty suggests the construction sector is expanding, while a reading below fifty suggests the construction sector is in contraction.
The January 2019 PMI data revealed a fall from 52.8 in December to 50.6 in January, against the neutral reading of 50.0. January data pointed to a loss of momentum for the UK construction sector, with business activity growth grinding to its weakest for ten months.
All three categories of construction output recorded weaker trends than those reported in December.
Residential work was the strongest performing area, although the latest expansion was only modest and the slowest seen since March 2018. Civil engineering activity increased marginally, with the rate of growth much softer than December’s 19-month high.
Commercial work was the weakest performing area of construction output in January. Latest data indicated a decline in work on commercial construction projects for the first time in ten months. Anecdotal evidence suggested that Brexit-related anxiety and associated concerns about the domestic economic outlook continued to weigh on client demand.
New business growth eased to an eight-month low in January.
Construction firms widely commented on softer demand conditions and longer sales conversion times, reflecting a wait-and-see approach to spending by clients. Concerns about the near-term outlook for new projects resulted in more cautious staff hiring policies at the start of 2019. The latest survey pointed to the slowest rise in employment numbers since July 2016.
However, construction firms remain positive about the outlook for business activity in 2019. Around 41% of the survey panel anticipate a rise in output, while only 16% forecast a fall.
Optimism had, however, fallen month on month. Large-scale civil engineering projects were cited as a key source of optimism, while Brexit uncertainty was the most commonly cited concern.
Tim Moore, Economics Associate Director at IHS Markit, which compiles the survey: “UK construction growth shifted down a gear at the start of 2019, with weaker conditions signalled across all three main categories of activity.
“Commercial work declined for the first time in ten months as concerns about the domestic economic outlook continued to hold back activity.
“The latest survey also revealed a loss of momentum for house building and civil engineering, although these areas of the construction sector at least remained on a modest growth path.”
Duncan Brock, Group Director at the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply said: “The sector suffered a sharp drop in output growth in January, and the softest rise in purchasing volumes since September 2017, as Brexit continues to hamper progress and dampen client confidence.
“The biggest shock came in the form of job creation which has managed to suffer the slings and arrows of Brexit highs and lows with solid hiring since the referendum result. Employment rose at the slowest rate since July 2016 and with optimism also in short supply, the sector only needs a small nudge to tip it closer to a recession.”
Commenting on the results, Brian Berry Chief Executive of the FMB, said: “The latest PMI data show a slowdown in growth in construction with business activity growth easing to its weakest for ten months. The ongoing political uncertainty is partly to blame for this setback.
“Political uncertainty is the enemy of construction firms that rely on the spending power of homeowners to commission home improvement projects. The UK is set to leave the EU next month, and yet we are still none the wiser about what the future holds. Given these intense headwinds, it should not be surprising that the sector suffered such a sharp decline.”
Mr Berry continued: “Alongside the political uncertainty, the cost of doing business is also rising for construction firms up and down the country. Material prices have been rising steadily since the depreciation of sterling following the EU referendum.
“Looking ahead, material prices are expected to continue to cause a headache for the construction industry with recent research from the FMB showing that 87% of builders believe that material prices will rise in the next six months. What’s more the construction skills crisis means that key trades are extremely difficult to recruit and the upshot of this is rising wages in construction.
“Tradespeople know they can command higher salaries than they did previously as workers are scarce, and this means a squeeze in margins for firms. This will only worsen if the post-Brexit immigration system that the Government has planned goes ahead.
“If the sector isn’t able to draw upon crucial EU workers of all skill levels, who have so far served to mitigate this shortage, the slowdown of growth will continue.”
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