The top job in Wales may not come with the perks of 10 Downing Street but it is still an important role. The first secretary of the Welsh assembly will have a say on apportioning money from Westminster – the assembly does not have tax-raising powers – for new schools and hospitals, roads, factories and major new building schemes. He can block or strongly recommend planning proposals; he can promote the private finance initiative and demand that local authorities adopt the anti-cowboy quality mark. He is a man the industry in Wales, and those hoping to win business in the principality, need to get to know.
However, the industry might not like what it finds. One local architect says Michael does not shout loudly enough about Welsh firms. He is also seen as a politician who is afraid to take a stand. The Welsh press once dubbed him “Tony Blair’s poodle”.
Despite this reputation, Michael has already taken one stand in favour of the construction industry in Wales, albeit for a scheme designed by an English architect. It was his decision, supported by his party, to ignore Tory criticism of the £10m spent on the Richard Rogers Partnership-designed assembly building – money that would have been spent on new hospitals had the opposition got its way.
Michael says Wales should have an outstanding assembly building, a symbol of the country’s confidence in its new government. But this is to be no Portcullis House. “It shouldn’t be overblown,” he says, mindful of the simmering doubts over whether Wales should even have its own legislature.
“We’re putting into the assembly building only those things that are needed – the actual debating chamber, the support facilities, the facilities for the public.” He takes great pains to emphasise that the assembly offices will be linked to a refurbished office building next door as a cost-saving measure, yet tries equally hard to balance this sensible attitude with enthusiasm. “We’re building an assembly building that will be a practical, airy and symbolic building. It’s difficult to think of a public legislature anywhere in the world that will be quite so open to the public and yet will be intimate and friendly.”
The public will be able to look down on the glass-walled debating chamber from an upper tier and listen to debates through headphones.
I’ve always been very careful with my bets and over the years that has proved wise
The diminutive Welshman with sandy hair, bland grey suit and gold-rimmed spectacles was born in Anglesey and brought up in Colwyn Bay. He studied philosophy and English at Keele University before becoming a journalist for five years. He then entered politics, working his way up the ranks. Although his critics say he lacks charisma, he reached the number two spot at the Home Office, reporting to Jack Straw, before Davies’ departure from the Welsh Office saw him land a seat in the Cabinet as secretary of state for Wales before the assembly elections last May.
He is positive about future development in Wales, citing the massive improvements to Cardiff as an example of the prosperity and rejuvenation he hopes will spread throughout the country. He is “absolutely delighted” with the Millennium Stadium and the redevelopment of Cardiff Bay, and optimistic that Wales faces a bright economic future – despite admitting that gross domestic product per capita is 70% of the European average.
“I’m confident that we’re continuing to bring in a high level of inward investment,” he says. But yet again, he tempers this with a warning: “There’s a lot happening, but I don’t want to overestimate the importance of this because what we’ve had is a massive loss of old heavy industries. You don’t rebuild an economy in 10 or even 20 years.” He sees each new foreign company that decides to locate in Wales – most recently Mitsui Components Europe in Ammanford – as a building block to a stronger economic future. The mothballed Korean LG plant in Newport is an “investment we need to capitalise on one way or another”.
As for future building work, Michael is vague. “One of my aspirations is to act as a bridge between the different parts of Wales,” he says. But there will be no major new roadbuilding schemes and the PFI seems to be heading for a period of stagnation. Michael looks set to encourage PFI schemes in Wales, although not in the hospital sector until he has sorted out the mess the Welsh health trusts are in. He talks of “massive debts” that need to be stabilised before any new building is authorised. He also hedges his bets on planning. “There will be a careful look at planning policies now, and we’ll have a much closer debate about what the particular Welsh problems are,” he says.
Yet at some point in the future, he will have tough planning calls or funding decisions to make. That makes him worth lobbying, at least as far as the Royal Society of Architects in Wales is concerned. But as its president Robert Firth admits, nobody knows whether he will stand up for construction in Wales if its needs clash with what Westminster wants.