These past weeks the debate has raged on the extent of the economic benefits of EU membership, with both sides of the referendum campaign declaring their beliefs one way or another. Well, I know which side I am on, and whilst to me it is clear that there are great economic benefits from being a member of the European Union, these benefits are never more obvious than when in Wales.
I am very proud of the investment that has been made in West Wales and the Valleys. I am less proud of the fact that this money is received because we are one of the poorest regions in Europe, but this statistic belies the tenacity and vibrancy of communities who, despite being victims of global economic shifts, have fought hard to rebuild and regenerate, and there is no doubt that these structural funds have played a central role in this re-birth.
A generation ago the economic foundations of my constituency were torn away by the closure of the mines. Thousands of people found themselves unemployed. Some of us remember only too well the scenes of boarded shop fronts and repossessed houses that stretched across the valleys. But…I do not wish to dwell on that moment in history but rather on what followed. Because there is a more positive story.
If you were to visit Neath now you would see a bustling town, with new shops opening, businesses starting up, and a £13m town centre redevelopment in progress. There is, of course, much work yet to be done. But the economy of Neath, and its villages, is growing. In stark contrast to those dark days my constituency can look forward to a more prosperous tomorrow. At least we could until very recently…
That image of a brighter future is now on hold, and will remain so until a week tomorrow because that transformation of the valleys economies has in large part been driven by the effective use of European Structural funds.
In the last round of funding, projects financed through our membership of the EU have helped launch 485 businesses across Neath Port Talbot. They supported 7,300 people into work. There have been 1,355 jobs created, 14,870 qualifications have been gained, and close to 5,000 people have completed an EU funded apprenticeship in this County Borough alone.
Projects such as the £22m Valleys Regional Park have built the tourist infrastructure of my constituency so that more and more visitors are coming to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Gnoll Country Park and the industrial heritage of Aberdulais Falls. That regeneration of Neath Town Centre – you will not be surprised to learn – is two-thirds financed through the European Regional Development Fund. The Engage Project, which received £11m of support from the EU, provided one to one intensive support to young people at risk of falling out of education and facing a lost future of long term unemployment.
Neath Port Talbot has also been lead partner on Workways, a project initially delivered across the county borough and then extended throughout the region as its success was proved. The project has helped tackle barriers that prevented individuals from finding or returning to employment, support with job search, CV writing, interview skills and access to training. Moreover, their highly experienced team developed crucial links with local employers who understood the benefits of liaising with Workways on recruitment drives, or helping participants gain the vital experience needed to find long term employment.
The Workways project would never have happened without EU structural funds, receiving a contribution of £16.7 million towards its overall costs.
There are many other projects, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the Swansea Bay Science and Innovation Campus, which has had a substantial impact on Neath and the region, and simply would not have happened without the £95 million of funding received from the European Union. We are proud of the great work that Derek does for Wales in the European Parliament. I’d like to acknowledge the efforts of Derek Vaughan, current Labour MEP for Wales and the Leader of NPTCBC, and Ali Thomas, current Leader, on enabling the project to happen.
Now, I would be only too delighted if the party opposite could offer guarantees that the structural funds currently provided to West Wales and the Valleys would, in the event of Brexit, be replaced like for like by this government…gob-smacked but still delighted. However, like the Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones, I rather doubt this would happen. Yesterday he rebutted a claim by Leave campaigners that Wales would not lose funding if the UK quits the EU, saying “they have no more power to make such a promise than his children’s pet cat”. And even if such finance was to be found, there is nothing this government, or any other, could do to make good the economic disinvestment that would follow a vote to leave. They could do nothing to protect the 100,000 jobs in Wales that depend on our trade with Europe.
So, for the thousands of people in my constituency, who have found work through the support of the European Union, for all the young people who have had their lives brought back on track by its help, I hope we will choose to remain next Thursday. And to those who urge us to take a leap into the dark I say: you may be able to afford the cost of Brexit; my constituents cannot.