Friday, 16 August 2013

A quarter of a million pounds.

Who authorised the investment of £250,000 of public money in the recently closed Westgate Street bar Fire Island? What was the rationale behind this decision? These questions need to be urgently answered by the National Assembly's investment body Finance Wales. The debt investment made in Fire Island was, even from a casual bystander's point of view, a high risk strategy. Why, in a town centre awash with bars, pubs and cut price alcohol deals, was it seen as a economically sound to invest tax payers money in another bar? No one celebrates or cheers when a business fails, jobs, dreams and ambitions are swept away by cruel economic realities and the owners of Fire Island and their other two businesses, The Buffalo Bar and Ten Feet Tall have no doubt shed many tears through these difficult times, and we must be sympathetic and caring. That said, it would appear that a collective madness has operated during this particular episode of questionable public expenditure and it is worth taking a moment to explore what these spending priorities really tell us about the Welsh Assembly Government. Public investment in private businesses is nothing new and if managed correctly can see communities regenerated and new industries flourish, but neither of those outcomes were likely here, at best a bar is likely to produce a handful of minimum wage bar and catering jobs. The lack of immediate economic benefit is only the tip of the iceberg, however, the actual costs that investing yet further in the alcohol industry incurs are ones that we as a society can ill afford and yet seem to be largely blind to. Firstly there is the opportunity cost of every pound spent on alcohol. Drinking could be described as an economic 'bad', the negative consequences of an individual investing in alcohol outweigh any productive benefit to the wider economy. For every pound spent on alcohol by the individual, society has to match it with hundreds of pounds spent of policing, health care, unemployment benefits, social services, the court systems and more. The drinks industry privatises huge profits and socialises even bigger costs, so when a government lends money to facilitate this process it can be said to be involved in a conspiracy against the general public. Finance Wales' investment also demonstrates a staggering failure of imagination. No doubt the organisation invests in all manner of businesses across Wales, but the decision to pour money into yet another bar in Cardiff's city centre, already a no go area on a Saturday night for many people due to drunken violence, infers to the casual onlooker the idea that central Cardiff can't be, or do, or produce anything else. If this is the extent of our economic thinking about the country's capital city, Wales is in dire trouble, can it be that the epicentre of the industrial revolution, a city of coal, ships, steelworks, factories and engineers can't dream up something more productive? Finally, there is a cost that is felt keenly by the volunteers and service users at the Living Room Cardiff, which, like all charities devoted to undoing the harm caused by the alcohol industry, has faced a struggle for its financial future over the last few years. A quarter of a million pounds would finance the Living Room for two and a half years and this in turn would add more to the Welsh economy than a new town centre bar. The Living Room regularly sees people return to work after years in addiction, it sees addicts forced into crime become law abiding and productive citizens, it sees people who have neglected their duties at work due to addiction become model employees and takes the strain off the NHS's A&E Departments on a Saturday night. In short, the Welsh Assembly Government should be investing in recovery for the long term, not in promoting yet more drinking by subsidising an already bloated alcohol industry in Wales.