Paul Matthews, CEO of Monmouthshire County Council, explains why it's no accident that Monmouthshire is the most vibrant place in Wales.
Monmouthshire is an extremely beautiful place, steeped in history. We've got the west of England to our east and the Valleys of South Wales to our west. The county covers quite a large geography, but the population is relatively small – barely 100,000 people.
Our population are fiercely proud of their place. It's not uncommon to have families that have been on the same patch for several generations. As a council, our leadership style is one of curation; the county was here long before we were and will be long after we're gone. So we understand our place and we understand our role.
Building sustainable, resilient communities
When you're in Monmouthshire, you get the sense that it's a vibrant place not by accident, but by design. We have a significant small and medium sized business base and we’re massively into tourism, farming and hospitality. We have Michelin-star restaurants, wealthy land owners and many high-net-worth individuals living here. But this is no land of milk and honey. We've also got significant rural deprivation which tends to be invisible as well as in towns where and the gap between significant affluence and relative poverty is often highly visible.
Our purpose is straight forward. We’re about building sustainable, resilient communities where nobody gets left behind. The Vibrant Economy Index ranks Monmouthshire top for inclusion and equality in Wales and that chimes with our priorities.
We spend a huge amount of our money locally – more than anywhere else in the UK according to an independent study1. So, for example, we’ve just completed a £100 million investment in two new secondary schools. We also start companies ourselves. The apprenticeship company we launched, for example, is funded entirely by the construction industry. It's trained 400 apprentices over the last five years, of whom 90% plus are in full-time employment.
We also own a livestock market and a solar farm, and we’ve just bought a business / science park. Soon we’ll be getting into the hotel / commercial property space. We are running 5G trials, Govtech challenges and making strides with local full fibre network through working with UK government.
Improving life chances
Of course, building sustainable, resilient communities is not all about GVA or any other typical measure of economic success. It's about life chances and working hard to narrow some of the gaps that we don't like.
The health statistics for Monmouthshire, for example, show strong life expectancy, but on a ward-by-ward basis, there are still some significant differences. So we have bespoke intervention. But because we don’t qualify for many grants, we have to be innovative. I can’t remember the last time we saw a leisure centre as a leisure centre. For us they are health venues, they are loneliness centres, they are whatever citizens want them to be. During the summer we had over 3,000 children attending our activity programmes, which are all based on health, fitness and wellbeing.
We also try to use the power of people to address the issue of cohesion. For example, about five or six years ago, we set up a deal where Monmouth became the world's first wiki town. We had hundreds of QR codes up all around the town with stories behind them that children, mothers and fathers and grandparents had written. Some saw this as a digital project but at root it was about social action and civic pride. It probably cost us about £10,000 all in and we got around £2.5 million worth of free, global press coverage out of it – gold-dust for a tourism county.
What comes next?
The next five years are going to be massively exciting. We're right at the heart of an emerging economic region that will stretch from Swansea to Swindon. Both of the Severn bridges touch down in Monmouthshire and this year the tolls are ending. This will create a whole basket of new opportunities. The lifting of the tolls and high land values in Bristol and Bath means people are already starting to look to Monmouthshire for more affordable places to live. We've got a choice about how we respond to these changes and we have to safeguard the desires of local people and do what we can to ensure they can afford to live here. Currently only 3% of our county is developed. We are going to need more homes but these will be built on terms that make sense to us rather than PLCs.
Above all, we're not interested in being a logistics hub. We're not running a job creation agenda here, we're running a wealth creation agenda. I want careers for the kids pouring out of Monmouthshire schools right now with pockets full of qualifications. I'm looking to create an environment they can be successful in and build the lives that they want to live. For those leaving for University and want to take on the world, we wish them well, but we want them to come home before they retire, not after and be successful from here.
We've got a lot of brilliant small and medium sized business here. Many are running as lifestyle businesses right now. If we can get a small proportion of those to build on their brilliance and expand that will help. As a Council we are going to invest to support the continued development of the commercial sector and encourage the growth potential that we know is here. In terms of universities, we're a stone's throw from Bath, Exeter, Bristol, UWE, Cardiff, USW and Swansea. What a rich place to be for talent!
Would you stay?
I’m pretty confident we can get any business that comes here to stay. The question we ask ourselves all the time is: if you didn’t know this place and you visited, would you want to stay? We’re part of the Syrian and Afghan relocation programmes. People that have come here on those programmes over the last four or five years are still here. We thought they’d all gravitate towards Cardiff or Newport, but many haven’t – which tells me something about our welcoming communities.
So – good growth, welcome and a sense of identity – those are the tenets we’ll continue to work with.