The Sharp End of the Brain Drain

Anyone who wants to inflict a heavy dose of existential angst upon themselves, and doesn’t have a Carpenters CD handy, could do worse than to take a walk through Wrexham town centre on a wet Wednesday morning in December. I speak as someone who loves the town like no other, and has done ever since my parents and I arrived there in the early 1980s. I’m not sure whether the sense of depression comes only from seeing it as it is now, or from remembering the bustling, vibrant place it was then. Don’t get me wrong – it’s still a brilliant town, once you get out of the centre; it has good housing, plenty of parks, a healthy cultural life, and an astonishing diversity of villages and landscapes within a five mile radius. But if I’d taken a first-time visitor with me as I walked through the town centre yesterday morning, they’d never have wanted to return. There seemed to be more shops boarded up than there were open, even in the flagship shopping mall, and those which were occupied were disproportionately betting shops, tattoo parlours, vaping supply shops and charity shops. The contrast with Shrewsbury or Chester couldn’t be starker. I could write a long screed about how a series of crass planning decisions made by the council (Labour at the time, naturally) in the mid-1990s destroyed the old town centre to leave us with what we have today, but I’ll save that for another time.

A good news story

On the contrary, what I’d actually like to write is a good news story. My reason for exploring Wrexham town centre yesterday morning is that I was trying to find a good-quality office into which to install a group of highly-qualified, highly-talented software developers to work on an exciting project right on the cutting edge of microelectronic technology, writing the software which designs the chips that go into the devices that we increasingly depend upon every day. The American company that I work for – based in Santa Clara in the heart of Silicon Valley, and already with one UK office in Cambridge – was planning to open a new technology development centre in Manchester, but by getting myself hired for the job of leading it and waxing lyrical upon the qualities of Glyndŵr University’s Computer Science department, I persuaded them to open it up in Wrexham instead.

Now we come to my burning problem, however: finding an office isn’t all that hard, but I’m already becoming anxious about where I’m going to find the people to put in it. It’s not the easiest place in the world to attract people to from outside, especially not at this time of year. And besides, what I’d really like to be doing is to create opportunities for local people, who like me can look past the superficial damage that decades of Labour rule has inflicted upon the town and work towards rebuilding it.

The chicken and the egg

It’s very well known that the biggest economic challenge that faces Wales is low pay; where there are jobs at all (and to be fair, unemployment in Wales is below the UK average), they tend to be disproportionately of the low-skill, low-pay kind. That’s certainly not because Wales doesn’t produce people capable of doing jobs of great skill and value, and you’ll find Welsh people filling such roles all over the world. The school I went to in 1980s Wrexham – one that would nowadays be described as a ‘bog-standard’ English-language comprehensive – had plenty of bright, hard-working, talented children, led by an inspirational headmaster and a tour de force of a deputy whose quirky patterns of speech still influence mine today. The thing is, with one or two exceptions, I don’t know whether any of them are still in Wrexham, or even in Wales.

The problem is that because Wales is a country of low pay and, all too often, restricted opportunity, talented people leave. Of course that’s not to say that those who stay, do so because they lack talent; far from it. But they often have to settle for jobs that are less stimulating than they’d like, adding less value to the economy than they’re capable of doing.

Quite a lot has been written in the press about this lately; I won’t rehearse the subject here in detail, but here are some recent links:

What happens then is that the lack of opportunities causes people to leave; and that makes bringing in new opportunities much harder, because many of the people you’d need to staff them with have already left. Which comes first, the people, or the opportunities for them? It’s certainly the case that you need one to get the other, but if all you have is a chicken then you’ll have to feed it for a while before you get an egg; and if all you have is an egg you’ll have to incubate it carefully before you get a chicken.

Reversing the cycle

What’s needed, of course, is a policy solution which addresses this, ensuring that people from Wales are educated and trained to a level that holds its own with the best in the world, and ensuring that there are opportunities for them to stay if they want to. Not only that, but this needs to be done in such a way that doesn’t restrict the benefits to a small elite of highly-trained specialists, but brings increased prosperity across the whole of society.

I’m not going to claim that there is a magic bullet for this, but there are some excellent suggestions in the links above. We also have examples of good practice from many other countries, not least Ireland, which used to have a far bigger problem than Wales in this respect but has turned things around to an astonishing extent (and not just because of its EU membership by any means). Look out for some ideas in Gwlad’s manifesto when it comes out.


6 thoughts on “The Sharp End of the Brain Drain

  1. Are amongst the planning decisions you lament the one which bulldozed the old Central Station and put that shopping centre thing in its place? I’ve always found it odd that the Beeching era hatchet job left that piddly little ‘branch’ line there at all. Probably a view into the slapdash nature of the execution of one of the worst political decisions in British history, and the seemingly arbitrary approach taken to ‘redesigning’ the railway network, as evidenced by the many anomalies in its present day form.

    A good point on the contrast between Wrexham and its ‘siblings’ over the border. I often make a comparable one myself; why, with no real physicogeographical or administrative divide, are the border settlements either side like night and day when it comes to relative affluence?

    1. I see you know the town.

      When we moved there in 1981 (when I was 11 years old) all that was left of Central Station was a shelter in the middle of a car park; but all the old market halls were still standing, and the old shops around Lambpit Street and Henblas Street. The town had real character, and proper upmarket shops like The Bon menswear shop on Town Hill and the mens’ shoe shop nearby (I think Dodmans’ but I may be wrong). That’s all been obliterated now. The new buildings are of a much lower standard, architecturally and structurally, than the ones they replaced and the Eagles Meadow shopping centre, built out on a limb too far away from the town centre proper, has been dying on its feet for years and is probably done for if Debenhams pulls out, which seems likely. Architecturally it would make an excellent office block or an extension to the Technology Park, but it’s hard to see people investing in commercial property in a post-COVID economy where working from home has been proven to work so well.

      The town’s best hope is that it’s still a fabulous place to live with a real sense of community and a healthy cultural life, so if the future consists of more people working from home then hopefully it can keep its best and brightest from moving away and rediscover its role as a cultural hub for the wider region.

      1. I guess it’s just too far enough away to benefit from the current hip and happening scheme de jour in the North East, the Deeside Enterprise Zone, or whatever they call it?

        1. I’d never thought of the Deeside enterprise park in quite those terms. Wrexham’s economy is actually pretty diverse, though like most of Wales its weakness is that it’s mainly foreign-owned manufacturing plants rather than home-grown businesses, though there are a few of those. Quite a lot of industry in the area supplies Airbus at Broughton in one way or another, so I do worry about the effects of a prolonged downturn in the aviation industry post-COVID.

  2. Oh, another one for your tech guy, all comments seem to have 12:01 as the posted time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.