FOUR projects worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the South West Wales economy should be with Government officials for sign-off in a matter of weeks.
It is a sign that the wide-ranging city deal for the Swansea Bay City Region is coming together, according to the person overseeing its delivery.
Jon Burnes is the portfolio director of the £1.15 billion programme, which brings together the public and private sectors to create jobs, attract investment and boost the area’s economy.
There are nine projects being delivered over 15 years for Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Neath Port Talbot and Pembrokeshire.
Three projects have already had the all-important sign-off from the Welsh and UK Governments, which are contributing £241 million to the city deal.
Three more have been approved by regional leaders – and they could approve another one before Christmas. The next step for the four projects is Government sign-off.
“As long as the Welsh and UK Governments are happy with what’s entailed with them – and we’ve had no early warnings to suggest otherwise – all of these four should be in delivery in 2021,” said Dr Burnes.
“You can’t underestimate how much goes on behind the scenes.”
Approval of the next four projects would give the region a much-needed fillip after a year blighted by the coronavirus pandemic and delays to the city deal programme, whose heads of terms were signed off to much fanfare in March 2017 at Swansea’s Liberty Stadium.
Dr Burnes took up his post liaising with four councils, two health boards and two universities a fortnight before the pandemic struck this year.
“Everyone I engage with was in crisis management,” he recalled. “That was a massive challenge.
“But we overcame it quite quickly. We are now working very well across the programme.”
Dr Burnes said he felt more could be done to promote the city deal to the wider community.
“Getting the message out there to the public and to local businesses is very important,” he said. “I think that’s something we need to work on.”
The city deal is designed to increase the productivity of the region and encourage skilled workers and entrepreneurs to stay in the area.
Dr Burnes said he remembered the term “brain drain” being used when he worked at Neath Port Talbot Council 15 years ago to describe the trend of graduates and talented employees gaining skills in the area but then leaving.
“The city deal is all about creating opportunities and good employment, and for businesses to have the space to get started and to grow.”
The current estimate is that the programme will create 9,728 high-quality jobs in health and life sciences, low-carbon energy and advanced manufacturing.
This in turn is projected to contribute £2.38 billion to the regional economy, raising its profile and attracting further investment.
The £1.15 billion city deal will be funded by the private sector (£591 million), Welsh and UK Governments (£241 million) and eight councils, health boards and universities (£330 million).
The Welsh and UK Governments will drip-feed their contribution over 15 years, with only one £18 million instalment handed over to date.
Dr Burnes said £18 million of private sector funding has been committed so far. He said he expected this key source of income to accelerate as more projects were signed off.
The 43-year-old said he did not anticipate the private sector keeping their chequebooks closed.
“We’ve had no indication that private sector will not be forthcoming,” he said. “But ultimately it could happen. If it did, we would have to deal with it.”
Dr Burnes said this wouldn’t necessarily mean councils participating in the city deal taking on extra borrowing to fill in the shortfall.
His message, though, was that things were moving in the right direction and that risks and contingencies have been planned for.
Dr Burnes said thefirst project to be signed off – the Yr Egin creative hub in Carmarthen – has delivered 102 jobs, with 58 of those a result of anchor tenant S4C moving west from Cardiff. The building is home to 17 creative and digital companies.
The 102 jobs’ total, said Dr Burnes, was 70% of the number forecast.
There has been much talk since the city deal agreement in 2017 about what’s in it for local businesses.
Procurement principles are in place to help ensure support for local firms and local jobs.
Dr Burnes said there would also be partnership, supply chain and research and development opportunities, and help to increase workers’ skills.
The father-of-one, who lives in Swansea, worked for Swansea University before his current role, and also had a stint for British Energy, which was taken over by French energy giant EDF.
Dr Burnes said Covid-19 was “front and centre” on the city deal’s risk register, while there is wider uncertainty about the demand for office space which some of the projects which help deliver, given the rise of home-working.
Maybe the pendulum will swing the other way again.
“You can’t second-guess what will happen,” said Dr Burnes. “And this is a 15-year portfolio.”
Asked which particular project or projects he felt would benefit the region most, Dr Burnes, replied: “I don’t want to give a politician’s answer, but I will.
“It’s the combination of projects that creates the difference for the region.
“It’s the whole package that elevates the profile of the region.”