Wales faces an imminent funding hole. After Brexit, we will lose access to the net benefit we gain from EU funds. These include the so-called ‘structural funds’, which support regional development and social initiatives. For 2012-20 alone, Wales has been allocated some £2 billion worth of structural funding. That’s a lot of money to miss out on, so there are hopes that a new, UK-wide Shared Prosperity Fund will fill the gap.
But, there are already plenty of questions – and few answers – about what the Shared Prosperity Fund will look like in practice. In a recent Westminster debate, Welsh MPs argued that continued funding for Wales should not fall below the current EU funding levels. Ceredigion’s Ben Lake, for example, described a well-financed Shared Prosperity Fund as a potential “lifeline for our communities”.
While we certainly don’t dispute the need for ongoing investment in Wales, Welsh communities have been thrown financial ‘lifelines’ from the EU for almost two decades. ‘West Wales and the Valleys’ – an amalgamation of our most economically under-performing areas – first qualified for the highest level of structural funding in 2000. At the time, hopes were high. EU funding plaques sprouted around Wales, promising all kinds of schemes and dreams. Yet when we interviewed Welsh policymakers as part of our IMAJINE project research earlier this year, many believed that the funding hadn’t actually worked. As one senior advisor explained, “We started with a position of economic and social inequality and we certainly haven’t closed that gap.” So, after Brexit, will the same amount of funding by another name prove any more effective for Wales?
There are stubborn socio-economic disparities in Wales. Some have argued that ‘left behind’ places in the UK swung the Brexit leave vote, which should make sharing prosperity matter more than ever. But it’s fair to say that Robin Hood redistribution won’t be government policy any time soon. If the Shared Prosperity Fund works like the structural funds, there will be strategic investment in some places or regions with the aim of helping them to catch up with other, more prosperous, places or regions. The trouble with regional development as a catch-up game is that success gets defined by what the strongest economic centres have already done. That makes it a hard game ever to win. We’d like to see instead an approach based on what several theorists have called ‘spatial justice’. Put simply, spatial justice is not about continued advantage for regions that are already better off, but it doesn’t assume, either, that every region needs the same development recipe. A prosperous Welsh future is not London’s past – nor simply one big Cardiff.
In our work with the IMAJINE project, Professor Rhys Jones and I have been looking at how spatial justice can be turned from a good idea into policies that work. There are already some encouraging signs in Wales. The Well-being of Future Generations Act, for example, is helping to define a Welsh future that extends beyond conventional measures of economic success. Policymakers in Wales need to continue to have the courage to pursue a Welsh version of a just future – and academics, like those of us in WISERD, have a role to play in helping refine and realise visions of justice in and for Wales. So, let’s talk about a Shared Prosperity Fund that delivers justice to Wales, not just the same sized funding cheque.