Any optimistic notion that the Covid-19 pandemic might not necessarily inflict serious damage on the economy was dispelled last week when Airbus announced that it was shedding 15,000 jobs worldwide, with over 1,400 from its Deeside wing-making plant at Broughton.
On reflection, the news should have surprised no one; demand for airliners has declined by some 40 per cent since the outbreak began, and it is estimated that passenger air traffic will not return to pre-Covid levels until around 2025.
The Government has provided sector-specific support for aerospace and aviation of around £6 billion, and Airbus itself has benefitted from the Coronavirus Corporate Finance Facility. Government support can, however, go only so far; it cannot artificially recreate the demand for aviation that prevailed before the pandemic. It will be essential to restore that demand before airlines start buying planes again; and that, in turn, will require a restoration of public confidence, which will take time.
It is hoped that many of the Broughton redundancies will be voluntary, but there is the distressing possibility that a large number will be compulsory. It is undoubtedly a worrying time for Airbus employees.
It is a worrying time, too, for many of the smaller companies that cluster around the Broughton factory. Those businesses, some of them very small indeed, provide a wide range of services to the Airbus plant. Their futures are inextricably bound up with that of Airbus itself, and their workers will understandably be feeling some anxiety at present.
Deeside is hugely important to North Wales. It is one of the most important manufacturing regions of the United Kingdom, and the livelihoods of many thousand families across our area depend on the work that is provided there. When Deeside does well, so does the whole of North Wales.
The unique feature of Deeside, of course, is that it straddles the boundary between England and Wales. Economic development of the region is therefore partly the responsibility of the Westminster Government and partly that of the Welsh Government. That is a disconnect that is arguably impeding the region’s growth.
This was recognised as long ago as 2012, when the business consultant Elizabeth Haywood prepared a report for the Welsh Government on the merits of creating city regions in Wales. She recommended the establishment of city regions in Cardiff and Swansea and – controversially at the time – called for a cross-border city region incorporating Deeside, Wrexham and the Chester area.
Dr Haywood’s proposal remains valid. The synergy generated by creating a new city region, with its own governance structures and, ideally, its own planning powers, could do a great deal to deliver an economic boost for Deeside at a crucial time.
The proposal would, of course, demand political maturity on the part of both London and Cardiff. It would amount to a further step in devolution. The region would be semi-autonomous. Both Governments would have to give powers away. Boldness would be called for.
But right now, boldness is precisely what Deeside needs from its Governments.