A thriving economy is one of the key ingredients needed to ensure the built environment can flourish.
In simple terms it puts money in people's pockets, it helps keep people out of poverty and it creates spending power in local communities. In Wales our built environment isn't a singular physical entity, instead it consists of cities, towns and villages spread across the length and breadth of the Nation, and many of them are comparatively small in terms of population.
With this in mind, achieving a thriving economy across all of our built environment demands a different approach to the big business global economic model that works for other much larger nations. We have seen on numerous occasions the negative impact when international businesses make decisions in boardrooms thousands of miles away to close down their operations in Wales. Ford’s decision to close their engine plant in Bridgend illustrates this, and it also shows the underlying weakness in being a destination for satellite production facilities. As we head towards life post-Brexit a new concern arises that being outside of the European Union will make Wales a less attractive location for international business looking for a European base.
To help counter this, it would make sense to align our approach to economic development to the physical characteristics of our built environment, in particular the diverse spread of urban centres, many of which have small populations. At the same time, it's important to acknowledge that we’ll be unlikely to be able to make things cheaper than countries where labour costs are lower and working practices questionable. However, we should be proud of living in a country where we care about workers rights, and instead of attempting to compete in markets where price is the driving force Wales has the opportunity to focus on making products that are intrinsically better designed and manufactured/produced.
Seeing that it's possible for enterprises to be set-up anywhere in Wales, and for them to become national and international success stories is massively encouraging. There will always be a market for well made quality products, and this is a marketplace Wales can excel in. To help create this robust, diverse, ethical and sustainable economic base across Wales now would seem to be the perfect time to encourage this type of locally grown enterprise. Key elements to the success of these enterprises seems to be:
- A genuine passion for their product
- Products that are well designed
- Products that are high quality and well made
- Products that stand out in their market and occupy a niche in their market
- Having a clearly documented, well told authentic brand
- The ability to sell online nationally and internationally.
In terms of the products themselves, are there any limits? Not really, although in this instance it’s logical to suggest the ability to start small and scale-up will make it simpler and more viable for a new enterprise to come to life. At this point, it’s worth acknowledging that whilst someone may be very good at making their specific products, they may well benefit from support to help identify their target market, develop their brand and establish their online presence. In particular, you can’t underestimate the importance that getting the brand right plays in helping new enterprises succeed, and it's worth asking whether our small business community has access to the high quality support they will need to ensure their brands are developed in a way that will work to ensure their success.
It is important to refocus on physically making things in Wales, particularly as COVID19 has highlighted just how overreliant our economy has become on the retail and hospitality sectors. Encouraging more businesses to start manufacturing a wide variety of different products in multiple locations will diversify our economic base, and have the potential to create new more highly skilled and hopefully better paid jobs.
To further illustrate the value in encouraging a growth in small businesses across Wales, Ben Cottam, Head of External Affairs FSB Wales for the Federation of Small Businesses, explains, “Growing smaller businesses which are rooted in their communities, delivering employment opportunities and developing opportunity through local supply chains is the big win for the Welsh economy. We know it’s become more difficult over recent years to attract ‘sticky’ inward investment and there’s been a vulnerability for Wales in attracting companies where their decision making lies elsewhere. What we need to do therefore is look at how we develop internationally-competitive indigenous smaller businesses.
There are so many businesses in Wales which already have unique products married with a strong and well-defined brand and many of these businesses are flag-carriers for Wales. We need to learn from these businesses and replicate that approach across more of our smaller businesses.
However, we need to think hard about how we develop our regional towns and the infrastructure within them to spread economic opportunity and create a better environment for more businesses to grow in more of our communities. It should be the case that no area of Wales should be exempt from the ambition and opportunity of economic development. The chance to grow businesses shouldn’t depend on where they’re located”.
If we envisage a Wales where every city, town and village has at least one small business whose products are world renowned, we’ll create a country with an enviable global reputation for quality, and with this comes international demand for the things being made by this new raft of small businesses across the country.
Ultimately, if we place a renewed emphasis on encouraging small businesses to bring their ambitions to life and to make goods we’d all be proud to own, we have the potential to create lasting economic prosperity throughout Wales.