BRING BACK THE WDA?

Who would have thought that a quango that many thought was dead and buried would be hitting the political headlines last week.

Yes, it would seem that there are those who still yearn after the Welsh Development Agency (WDA), the body that for many years was responsible for delivering economic development in Wales, mainly through the attraction of overseas inward investors.

However, it would seem that the current First Minister is not a fan and will certainly not be entertaining any thoughts of bringing back the WDA.

Indeed, in a response to a question in the chamber of the national Assembly for Wales, Carwyn Jones stated that the “The WDA had its day 20 years ago. But for the whole of the last decade, and most of the ’90s, it delivered absolutely nothing.”

That is not too surprising, given that he was a member of the Government that abolished the body back in 2006, a decision that was supported by Plaid Cymru at the time.

Yet it would seem from their party conference over the weekend that there has been a change of heart from the Party of Wales on the WDA, with their leader Leanne Wood stating that she would be looking to create a new private sector-led body that will proactively seek opportunities to invest European funds, other public funds and private capital for the maximum long-term economic benefit of Wales.

And whilst not calling directly for the WDA to be recreated, as the Welsh Conservatives have done in the past, this new organisation does sound remarkably similar to the way in which the WDA operated over its lifetime.

However, trying to recreate an organisation that focused predominantly on bringing in large companies to replace jobs lost in the coal and steel industries may not be relevant to today’s Welsh economy where entrepreneurship and innovation are the key factors in driving forward competitiveness.

In that respect, rather than hankering for the revival of an organisation whose best days, according to the First Minister, were already behind it when it was abolished, perhaps our politicians should be looking to other small successful economies for inspiration.

For example, Finland is regularly noted as one of the most competitive and innovative economies in the World and one of the main factors behind its success has been a specific government body that has driven and developed innovation throughout the Finnish economy.

Established in 1983, TEKES is responsible for administering public support for private and public sector R&D and innovation in Finland and whilst its programmes have been focused very much on supporting technology within companies and public institutions, there have been additional positive effects such as increased networking between companies and R&D organisations in targeted clusters and increased collaboration between researchers across different disciplines.

Its impact has been tremendous, being responsible for supporting more than half of Finnish innovations during the last thirty years, and there are certainly lessons for Wales from this experience.

For example, the WDA’s focus on attracting large foreign direct investment did little to support the long-term innovation performance of our nation. Its subsequent integration into the Welsh Government has also had a minimal impact on ensuring that Wales becomes the “small clever nation” which Assembly members have been calling for since the advent of the National Assembly.

Indeed, if politicians really want a body that can impact on the Welsh economy, then they should get on the first plane to Helsinki and find out how they could establish a Welsh TEKES that would focus on developing the innovative potential that exists within this nation.

And if we were to get only a fraction of the success that the Finnish economy has enjoyed during the last three decades, then it would be one of the more astute policy decisions that any political party in Wales could make in developing the Welsh economy.

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