Culture and the city region

Geraint Talfan Davies offers his thoughts on how the Cardiff Capital Region could develop a cultural strategy to more effectively link the region with those that live within it.

Geraint Talfan Davies is the former Chair of the IWA. This article was first prepared for an event looking at the south Wales metro held in early November by Cardiff University.

Rail networks alone do not a city region make. This is a truth that we must never forget as we plan the future of Cardiff Capital Region over the next few years. You cannot rewire mindsets that have stood for two centuries and more simply by swapping clapped out diesel trains for shiny electric ones or opening a few new stations. We certainly need those new trains and the new stations, but it will not be enough.

There is an economic challenge facing the region, and the result of the Europe referendum was a reminder of how much that matters. The Capital Region Metro will be a significant contributor to meeting that challenge by addressing the pressing transport needs of the region, but let us not load the rail project with too many unrealistic expectations of radical economic change in the short term.

The success of the city region in raising the prosperity of all its parts is going to be measured across decades, and certainly not within a single, or even two, election cycles. Success will depend on a combination of speedy and effective implementation of the new network, and energetic economic development policies at the Welsh and UK levels.

It is of real concern that, in contrast to the Swansea Bay City Region, we have yet to achieve any institutional coherence in south east Wales. There is a Cardiff Capital Region Board, but the City Deal with the UK Treasury is being negotiated by the 10 local authorities. Meanwhile a Valleys Task Force has been set up in the wake of the EU referendum. Transport for Wales is a creature of the civil service not a Passenger Transport Executive with the skills and freedom of, say, London’s Olympic Delivery Authority.

None of this does much to embed the idea of the city region in the minds of citizens.  That is why we have to develop a cultural strategy that can sit alongside strategic investments in infrastructure. We can talk about place-making at the local community level – and that is very necessary – but in city region terms we also have to make a place, to make the coast and valleys of south east Wales cohere into a city region that has a real sense of itself. If the city region is to be that, and not some artificial bureaucratic construct, it must have a cultural policy that makes it one place not two.

As a remarkably well-informed Mayor of the Vancouver city region once told an IWA conference in Cardiff, you will have a successful city region when the people of Cardiff are perfectly comfortable being led by a leader from Blaenau Gwent. You won’t get to that situation without an active cultural agenda.

We need initiatives that weld the region together, and cross what one insensitive house-builder described as the ‘snow line’ above which he would not build. What might be those cultural ingredients be? Here are some ideas to start the discussion:

  • First, map the activity in all the localities of the city region – arts, heritage, food, creative companies, parks, gardens, open spaces, cycle ways and trails – and plot against the proposed Metro network.
  • Since the EU referendum has put paid to our chances of bidding for the European Capital of Culture title for 2023, we should mount an imaginative city region bid for the title of UK City of Culture in 2021. This would mesh with the timetable for the development of the Metro. It would need to make use of all the city region’s cultural assets, and they are many: the region’s common history, its industrial heritage, the array of national arts organisations in the capital city, the spread of theatres, choirs, bands and community arts across the valleys. As Cardiff found in bidding for the European title in 2005, the process of putting a bid together will of itself lead to new energies, ideas and alliances. Don’t wait for the Metro.
  • National Theatre Wales has shown how to create high impact popular events – The Passion at Port Talbot and, in collaboration with WMC, the Roald Dahl centenary event in Cardiff. These were attended by tens of thousands, and achieved national and international profile. It should be the turn of the valleys for the next major event of that kind.
  • Extend the principle of WMC’s Festival of Voice to embrace the music tradition of the valleys and their venues or perhaps go even further by emulating Edinburgh’s example by creating a festival of festivals. We already have many of the ingredients:  Cardiff Singer of the World, Festival of Voice, the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, the Green Man Festival at Crickhowell, the Steelhouse Festival (Rock music) at Ebbw Vale, the Swn Festival of indie music in Cardiff.
  • On the heritage front use the UK City of Culture bid as a spur to create a new World Heritage Site in Merthyr, to add to the one at Blaenavon. The industrial heritage of Merthyr – a crucible of the Industrial Revolution has suffered from the limited capacities of such a small local authority. Successive strategies have either withered on the vine, or been diluted in execution.

At last something is to be done to develop Cyfarthfa, the ironmaster’s castle, with a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund, but there would be a much bigger win if it were possible to develop the whole bowl from the castle to the east, down to the river Taff and across to the historic iron furnaces, currently badly neglected, to the west. The open space near the furnaces has great potential as a site for open air events. There is no doubt that this is a site of world significance. Its rescue and development could be an important early achievement by the city region.  

  • Build on existing cultural networks to embrace the whole city region – Arts Connect in the western valleys, Head4Arts in the eastern valleys, Arts Active in Cardiff, Creative Cardiff at Cardiff University, What Next? that has groups in Cardiff, the Vale of Glamorgan and the Valleys. These networks are important in ensuring that strategies are built from the bottom up, not the top down. They could be encouraged to develop into local cultural consortia, but linked across the region.
  • Create a unified cultural website for the region that is focused on the audience, not on organisations or Councils, replacing the current woeful local authority websites where arts and culture information hide behind a thicket of mundane but necessary bureaucratic information requirements. There should be a greater onus on all arts organisations to collaborate to make this a success.
  • Develop nodes of arts activity in every valley that will draw young people and link up with creative digital technology companies. This could be a way of building out from the Welsh Government’s Creative Learning through the arts programme. It could also involve the FE colleges of the region.
  • Develop other nodes that take advantage of existing centres – Park and Dare Theatre and Valleys Kids in the Rhondda, the Coliseum in the Cynon Valley, the Red House in Merthyr, Blackwood Miners’ Institute in the Sirhowy Valley, the Beaufort Theatre at Ebbw Vale, the Artis Community in Pontypridd, the Borough Theatre at Abergavenny. Individual artists and start-ups often gravitate towards less expensive property. There is precious little of that left in Cardiff.
  • Incentivise collaboration between Cardiff-based organisations and Valleys arts initiatives.  
  • Insist that Visit Wales give the arts and cultural activity a much higher profile as well as more regional coherence on its own website.

This is only to scratch the surface of the possibilities, but at least it is enough to prove that there is a wealth of possibilities that each locality and the region as a whole need to explore and develop. It would be a route to the creation of a new reality and a positive psychology for the whole region.

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