Fewer councils, more Barack Obama: Welsh success recipe

A parliamentary inquiry into the promotion of Wales overseas is proving more interesting than it first appeared.

Today, the Welsh affairs committee took evidence from, among others, the Institute of Directors in Wales. Its chair, Huw Roberts, suggested the number of local authorities in Wales should be cut from the "ridiculous" 22 to just five.

Mr Roberts said: "With five authorities you could have five top class sections looking at economic development. To have 22 scattered across Wales which have to have 22 bosses, 22 deputies and 22 of all the rest of it in no one place will there be enough strength or effectiveness so it is yet another area where the ridiculous number of local authorities in Wales is damaging."

He added: "We are not arguing for more elected members. We are arguing for better ones in the right place."

The Welsh government is expected shortly to bring forward plans to cut the number of Welsh councils after an independent commission said it should be cut from 22 to 12.

Financier Michael Carrick, who is involved in the proposed Circuit of Wales project, criticised the performance of Welsh government officials on a trip to China. Mr Carrick said the officials were unable to speak Chinese and mostly talked about what they wanted to do in Wales rather than the purpose of the "frustrating" visit. The firms they met knew nothing about his company - or Wales. "I don't think it was worth our time going. I think we were educating the companies we saw about Wales more than the officials were."

A Welsh government spokesman said that on last October's trade mission all the delegates were accompanied by representatives from its Chongqing office, all of whom were Chinese nationals and speak English and Mandarin.

A meeting with the UK government's DTI was far more effective, he said, as the representatives were fluent in Chinese and English. He said a colleague in IT had had a more productive visit to China with Welsh government officials.

Huw Roberts said a Welsh minister had arrived in New York to promote Wales on March 17 rather than St David's Day. "Turning up on St Patrick's Day is not a great idea." I understand this visit predates devolution and the minister involved was a previous Labour secretary of state for Wales.

The IoD wants a new "arms length" body to bring together Welsh government functions that promote Wales. Mr Roberts suggested the Visit Wales campaign highlighting the inability to get a mobile signal in parts of Wales as an example of a clash with the drive to secure investment.

Mr Roberts was cautious about claims that the relative performance of Wales on inward investment is improving. Some of the figures being bandied about are fairly selective. Yes, the figures are going up but for Wales as a proportion of the UK they remain at historic lows. In percentage terms they remain a very low proportion of the UK."

Former Plaid Cymru leader Lord Wigley told the committee Wales should use the Welsh connections of international figures such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The US president was "a percentage Welsh", said Lord Wigley, through the Perry family of Anglesey: "Are we using these linkages in order to maximise our opportunities?"

Lord Wigley tells me the correct percentage is a precise 1.58%.