Challenges and Opportunities for a City Deal for South East Wales – published Western Mail 22 March 2017
Challenges and Opportunities for a City Deal for South East Wales.
A personal view.
The City Deal approved by the 10 councils of SE Wales last week gives the Cardiff Capital City Region the opportunity, and the means, to become a reality. But the agreement, and the £1.3Bn identified is only the start, and the challenge is now to leverage investment into the region by translating the intent into meaningful and beneficial infrastructure.
The City Region concept had been given its initial credibility by the City Growth Commission run by Jim (now Lord) O’Neill which identified accountability and effective collaboration between its constituent parts supported by clear vision and leadership as the keys to delivering the economic growth potential. It highlighted the need for an effective transport network between and within regions as a critical factor, managed by a Passenger Transport Executive (PTE), responsible for specifying and delivering an effective transport network.
The Welsh Government formed a Task & Finish group (chair Dr. Elizabeth Heywood) to guide the way forward, and in July 2012 its final report was issued and was accepted by minister Edwina Hart. It stated that:
‘If Wales does not develop policies to harness the economic benefits to be had from the critical mass effect of a city region, our poor (economic) performance is likely to continue.’
Simply identifying a City Region was never going to resolve the issues; it needs skills, housing, jobs and transportation to improve, managed by a governance system able to drive change and accountable to the population and to the country. The SE Wales region is not one centre of population with a surrounding network of small towns and villages, but a poly-centric region with Cardiff as its main centre and a poorly connected set of towns that were primarily responsible for Cardiff’s growth in the first place. Cardiff owes these towns much that could be delivered by a City Region.
City Regions only succeed when the vision is shared ( at least we have a joint commitment to that) but to avoid the ‘tribalism and parochialism’ referred to in the WG report we need more than a high level statement of agreement. The plans for Local Authority reform to group together have collapsed and been replaced by a plan to coordinate and collaborate between the existing local authorities; this may be sufficient to improve local services by sharing waste collection and administrative tasks but not to run a regional economy under threat from other UK regions and operating in tricky financial conditions. This requires a City Region authority, not a committee, and is why Roger Lewis agreed at the IWA Economic Conference on 28th March 2014 that a PTE for the newly created region would be his main priority and that ‘we are a board in a hurry’. Nothing was achieved except to name it as the Cardiff Capital City Region.
The regional transport network is the missing link, the most important single development identified by all those asked to contribute to the city region objectives. A regional PTE may once have been the priority, but it has been side lined in all plans made subsequently, including and especially the Cardiff LDP which concentrated only on land use within the city boundaries. A PTE to design, develop and then run the network is the only way forward, following the example of all successful City Regions; empowered to implement and deliver a functioning network. Instead we have a national body, Transport for Wales, given responsibility for the Metro as part of its all Wales responsibility to design, develop and run the total network of road, heavy rail, air and Metro type systems. The re-franchising of the Wales and Borders franchise will dominate the work for years and will not give adequate attention to our Metro.
The challenges for the City Region can therefore be summarised as:
- Getting unanimity of vision and of the way the benefits are delivered; not all corners of the region can benefit from day 1 and parochialism will rule without a unified regional authority.
- Finance, since the £1.3Bn is only a start. This will require a strong and unified vision for the whole region with a clear long term determination to deliver the means for success. Supply chains are credited with a 4 times multiplier for jobs where growth industries can be established.
- Bringing growth and productivity to a poor performing region. A skills deficit and a poor transport network will undermine the ambitious office building programme in Cardiff.
- Delivering a world class transport network to the region needs a PTE body responsible to the region. Burying the Metro delivery inside a national Transport for Wales (TfW) body that will be totally consumed by the task of re-specifying the network, franchise selection, service re-specification, delivery and management is a mistake. It will not get around to delivering Metro, and the growth committed by the LDP will fail because of congestion and pollution. This is a warning also given to London today (the Times, March 14th 2017).
- Delivering and prioritising the inclusion of Valley communities into the Cardiff growth; the deprivation reported is shameful and we need to give them a chance by making connectivity and access to skills and jobs. A regional strategy and perspective is still a dream, but connectivity is king.
Expanding on each of these challenges would be to repeat much of what the Heywood team concluded in their final report in 2012. What is needed is:
- A single SE Wales executive authority to drive economies of scale and provide a blueprint for the whole region economy. Development must be made where opportunity is greatest, not to please everyone. The abandonment of the Local Authority merger plan is a mistake, it is not enough to coordinate – as the Heywood report says, tribalism will strangle this quickly if allowed to. A good example is the specification of an inadequate new Bus Station in Cardiff, half of the size needed to support the region because the Cardiff LDP does not look beyond the city boundaries.
- A PTE, as committed by the first City Region chairman Roger Lewis. This must be separate from the TfW national body and deliver a fast solution to the region transport needs; a tram/light rail system (like most other UK city regions) dedicated to supporting the travel to work area between the Heads of the Valleys in the north and the coast and from Newport and Monmouth in the east to the airport in the west. Even the new development sites around Cardiff will not have an means of getting people to work effectively, and houses are being designed with car commuting in mind.
- Leveraging and developing the skills and business competences that exist in the region to attract new business and build supply chains throughout the region.
- A world class digital economy with a focus on access to information on the go and capacity and security of data to support a 21st century working life.
- Productivity means investment in reducing work input for a given quantity of economic output. This is a painful process best done in a period of growth; embrace new technology and skills early and growth will follow but this needs skilful management and active support from our universities.
- Expand the initiative of making Cardiff a ‘Liveable City’ that will rival European cities in Quality of Life. It is a good and worthwhile concept, but is not a regional objective and lacks concrete measures to deliver it. Pollution is the number 2 killer (according to Public Health Wales) and is already an issue here, yet congestion will only get worse unless serious attention is given – Metro is still the answer.
We live in interesting times!! But action now can deliver enormous dividends for the region and for Wales; it will take courage, vision and a consistent attention to leadership for the long term.
Sec. Cardiff Civic Society