During a webinar last year on “the past, present and future of Welsh living standards”, the first minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, told an anecdote to illustrate a point. Mr Drakeford had publicly floated the idea of using tax devolution powers to persuade people living in, for example, Bristol, to come and live in Wales and become Welsh taxpayers. This idea was frostily received by current Welsh taxpayers, he reported. The gist of the reaction was that “people who live in Wales need to belong to Wales” rather than have their truest and deepest affiliations elsewhere.
The response shows that while Wales shares many economic challenges with English regions such as the West Midlands and the north-east, questions of national identity add an extra layer of sentiment that counts in people’s everyday lives. This was illustrated again last week, when the Welsh government’s economy minister, Vaughan Gething, focused on the number of young people leaving the country. The government’s aim of increasing the number of Welsh speakers to a million by 2050 would be imperilled, he said, if too many youngsters in language heartlands in the west and the north felt obliged to up sticks and head to English cities for high-quality, well-paid jobs. An upbeat campaign has been launched to persuade more to stay closer to home. “It’s about having a more optimistic vision of the future,” Mr Gething suggested. “You don’t have to get out to get on.”
There is no doubt that Wales’s demographic problem is increasingly pressing. The country is older than the rest of the UK and ageing at a faster rate. But rectifying this will require more than an optimistic outlook, especially in the Welsh-speaking “heartland” areas identified by Mr Gething. Some young people will always seek a different kind of life in the big cities. But for those minded to remain, more needs to be done in terms of providing good jobs and affordable homes.
According to depressing statistics released in the summer, almost half the properties sold in the beautiful northern constituency of Dwyfor Meirionnydd were probably purchased as second homes. This is driving up house prices unsustainably in one of the poorest areas in Britain. The same pattern is evident in areas such as Anglesey and Pembrokeshire. Higher taxes on second-home purchases are not solving the problem, which is forcing young people to move away whether they like it or not. More affordable homes need to be built.
For those who do stay, average wages are among the lowest in the UK. Mr Drakeford’s Labour administration is promoting a long-term rise in remote working post-pandemic, in the hope that IT and service sector jobs normally found in cities can be distributed more evenly across the country. A “young person’s guarantee” for under-25s has also been introduced, offering access to education and apprenticeships. But Brexit has created new economic headwinds, cutting off a vital supply of European Union investment across Wales. Boris Johnson’s government has yet to reveal how it will make good this loss. It should do far more to work alongside the Welsh government in the battle against rural depopulation.
The stakes for some of the most beautiful and distinctive communities in Britain are high. Heartland areas such as Dwyfor Meirionnydd deserve to thrive and prosper, offering hope and opportunity to future generations, and preserving the traditions of the past. For that to happen, London and Cardiff both need to do their bit.