Over the last six months a number of Welsh politicians have made positive statements about infrastructure and economic development. Carl Sergeant, the Welsh Minister in charge of transport, and First Minister Carwyn Jones, have both supported an integrated metro style transport system for south Wales, and endorsed the city region approach to economic development.
Meanwhile, Business Minister Edwina Hart has established a task and finish group to advise on how this should be tackled which is expected to report in the first quarter of this year. At the same time the Secretary of State for Wales, Cheryl Gillan, appears to be throwing her political weight behind the electrification of the Valley lines.
On the back of this strong political consensus, I think it is reasonable to have some realistic expectation of progress in 2012. Let me outline five areas.
1 The adoption of a City Region approach in Wales
While I am confident that Dr Elizabeth Haywood’s task and finish group on City Regions will conclude that this is a direction in which Wales needs to go, in my view it is likely to focus on its two major city regions (based on population, economic statistics and commuting patterns) – the 1.4 million Cardiff City Region and the 0.5 million people in and around Swansea Bay. A third possibility may be a northeast city region around Wrexham.
This will require a new approach to addressing strategic issues in these areas – embracing economic development and strategic land use planning as well as transport. Transport issues will remain central to the realisation of their potential. Although the task and finish group will report not later than March, we will almost certainly have to wait until after the local authority elections in May for major decisions, and probably until the autumn.
2 A positive decision to electrify the entire south Wales rail network
My understanding is that the Welsh Government has completed a very professional job, with support from Network Rail and the Department of Transport in London, in preparing two robust business cases. One is for the electrification of the Valley Lines and the other to electrify the Great Western Main Line from Cardiff to Swansea.
This work was undertaken in full compliance with the Department of Transport’s five case model that requires exploration of the strategic, economic, financial, commercial and management cases for any scheme. I understand that this work demonstrated that the electrification of the wider Valley Line network – including lines to Ebbw Vale and Maesteg – and the main line to Swansea both show a positive return on investment. They stand comparison with other major UK rail schemes such as Crossrail, HS2, and the Trans-Pennine electrification.
However, the final decision is not one for the Welsh Government. As rail infrastructure is a non-devolved matter, it is for the Department for Transport in London to make a final decision as it prepares the England/Wales High Level Output Specification for Control Period 5 between 2014-2018. Whilst both schemes have a positive return they will be up against a range of other ‘compelling’ projects in England such as the Midland Main Line electrification and the Northern Hub. So the Welsh schemes will need a strong cross party lobby to make them happen.
Although rail is a non-devolved matter, part of the decision-making process will come down to who pays, and a little pragmatism at both ends of the M4 maybe required to secure a positive decision. One way or the other this will resolve itself in the next few months, with a final decision by about the middle of 2012.
3 Further development of the south Wales Metro concept
Given the positive political statements and apparent good progress being made on the business cases for electrification, in my view the Metro question should now move on to ‘what, when and how’, rather than ‘why’ and ‘if’. This should include consideration of routes, technologies, stations, modal integration, passenger information, branding, ticketing, regeneration, and land use planning. There is much work still to do – but with an established and growing support base.
The anticipated completion of Valley Line electrification in 2017-18 provides a boundary. Until then, smaller tactical schemes can be developed and delivered in support of the wider metro concept. In the main these will derive from the work already undertaken by the South East Wales Transport Alliance, the Welsh Government and Network Rail.
However, we should also start planning for more substantive Metro components that can be delivered after 2018 and into the 2020s. This will require a more strategic approach and one that integrates major land use planning across the wider Cardiff City Region. I would like to think, as Carl Sargeant suggested in December, that the scheme will push beyond Cardiff’s immediate hinterland and embrace all of south Wales’ main urban areas – Swansea, Newport, Cardiff and the Valleys.
4 Revision of the High Speed 2 route
A decision on the go-ahead and route of High Speed 2 was due in December. However, the new Secretary of State for Transport, Justine Greening, deferred a final decision. As it stands, Wales could be disadvantaged by the implementation of High Speed 2. Early in 2011 a Greengauge21/KPMG report forecast nearly 70,000 fewer jobs in Wales and the south west of England as a direct result of the current proposals, which would result in every major English city ending up closer to London than Cardiff.
The KPMG analysis assumed the electrification of the Great Western Main Line and a reduction in journey times to one hour 45 minutes (the same time that was possible in the mid 1980s). Westminster’s Transport Committee, to which the Cardiff Business Partnership submitted evidence, also noted these issues in its recent report on High Speed Rail. It also noted the limited consideration given to interconnectivity between the Great Western Main Line, High Speed 2 and Heathrow.
From my soundings it is clear there is much backbench concern over the current scheme and especially the route through the Chilterns. The delay announced by Justine Greening provides an opportunity. It seems possible that if the scheme does progress, a new alignment along the M40 and via Heathrow directly could be chosen.
This was the route favoured by both the Conservative Bow Group, and previously by the Conservative Party, and the Labour Party. It would be far more beneficial for Wales and South West England as it would include a major new transport interchange immediately north of Heathrow – a ‘Heathrow Hub’ on the Great Western Main Line – that would incorporate a new airport terminal, integrated with an interchange with, High Speed 1, High Speed 2, Crossrail and the M25. Failing this, a scheme to provide a service directly into Heathrow Terminal 5 from Reading is also being developed. Whilst not as ambitious as the ‘Heathrow Hub’, it would deliver benefits to Wales, South West England and The Thames Valley.
5. Progress on developing plans for a Severn Barrage
Perhaps an even more exciting and impactful project is that for the Severn Barrage. Whilst controversial it could provide an economic stimulus not seen since the mining industry was at its peak a century ago. This ‘new coal’ could provide 5 per cent of the UK’s energy and a once-in-a-generation economic stimulus across Severnside.
Aside from the clean energy, the proposals could incorporate better regional transport, deep-sea container ports and provide jobs on a scale we desperately need over the next 20 years if Wales is to catch up with the other countries of the UK. Cardiff Airport would also benefit as its immediate catchment area would double as a result of the enhanced transport links with south west England. There is still much to do and many concerns to address. However, Corlan Hafren’s new private sector backed proposals for a barrage from Lavernock Point to Brean Down deserve to be considered seriously and, in my view, given huge support.
Overall, I am hopeful for progress on all of the above projects. Even in these gloomy economic times, there do seem to be opportunities that could have a lasting and positive impact on the Welsh economy. We just need the courage, vision and determination to make them happen, and a willingness to plan for the long term. Let’s aim to do a few things well, rather than succumb to the slow decline that will be inevitable under a homogenous mediocrity.