Luke Fletcher MS, Plaid Cymru’s new spokesperson for the economy, talks jobs, tourism and why we need to have a Wales that works

This article was written for the Sunday Times, 20 June 2021

A Wales that works. It was on this principle I stood for in the recent Senedd elections, and this is a manifesto pledge I would stand on again. The premise is simple, Wales will work if its people have work.

However, the Wales we have today is not working.

Since the start of the pandemic, the number of people receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance, or who receive Universal Credit and are required to look for work, has doubled. Of those still in work, the latest figures show 131,900 people are still on furlough. In fact, it’s never been below 100,000 since the start of the scheme, and the Resolution Foundation has raised concerns that unemployment will spike when furlough ends.

Welsh Labour’s programme for government pledges “ambitious and radical commitments” to “tackle the challenges that we face”.

We have people out of work, and we have a real danger that a lot more will be out of work.

This is a real challenge facing Wales right now, and it’s so important that the government facilitates the conditions that will enable our existing businesses to survive, and encourage new, home grown businesses to flourish.

The new programme for government for the sixth Senedd term promises to “create new jobs in the industries of the future” – something that’s pretty hard to disagree with – but my concern is what radical commitments can be made for the industries of the present.

Let’s take one small aspect of our economy – hospitality – which is facing two big threats. The first is the rather more obvious fact that there have been heavy restrictions on the ability of many venues to open, or open fully. Many hospitality venues and tourist attractions still have staff on furlough. Traditional holiday seasons have been disrupted, a severe shortage in staff has hampered many hotels, bars and restaurants right across Wales, and changes in ways of working has meant that reserves have been spent developing COVID-secure ways of operating, such as outdoor seating areas.

Not a great position to be in as we enter a second mid-pandemic holiday season, against the backdrop of talk of a third wave.

The second, and perhaps more subtle threat to the industry is its viability given the boost in self-catering style holidays. A self-contained unit is deemed more COVID-secure than hotels and restaurants with their communal areas. Yet you do not need as many staff to run self-contained units as you do a hotel with fully staffed bar and restaurant. But why rent somebody else’s place when you can buy your own? As “staycations” become the norm, and people across the UK are rediscovering British seaside, Wales, with its 870 mile long coastal path, has become a new desirable location for people seeking a second home.

In the local authority of Gwynedd, around 40% of houses that go on the market every year are now bought as second homes. The plight of the village of Cwm-Yr-Eglwys in Pembrokeshire, which has only 2 permanent residents – the rest of the 50 houses being holiday homes – was widely reported in the British media a couple of weeks ago. They say tourists bring work, but the truth is this once thriving town no longer has shops or pubs, when it used to have many. And when there are no shops, the holiday makers will bring food with them from home, because they cannot buy local.

Left unchecked, this trend spells disaster for the hospitality industry, not to mention the locals trying to buy a home in an area with rocketing house prices. The unintended consequence of leaving one area unregulated is having a real impact on other aspects of our economy. Tourism is so important to the Welsh economy, but we must now start talking about sustainable tourism.

What we need is a government that will step up and show support for those tourist enterprises which provide maximum benefit to local communities, rather than allow extractive tourism that sees Wales as a resource to be exploited by outside interests. I want to see commitment from the government to find ways of increasing local ownership and control of the industry. Tourism should never be something that is done to a country, and yet how much of the profit from holiday lets and holiday parks comes back into Wales?

Tourism and hospitality is just one aspect of the Welsh economy, but when Wales is potentially facing a spike in unemployment once furlough comes to an end, Welsh Government absolutely must ensure that this industry ‘works’. It is all very well committing to creating jobs in “industries of the future” but the industries of the present have genuine fears for their own future, and will be looking to the Welsh Government to provide leadership and support at this worrying time.