Cardiff needs a plan more than a vision

Mark Drakeford reflects on Cardiff’s Council’s abandonment of its local development plan

According to the City Council’s website, Cardiff is a ‘proud city’. Well, it may no longer be led by a member of the House of Lords, but a feeling that this claim is true only ‘up to a point Lord Copper’ is one which is becoming harder and harder to resist.

The present Lib Dem/Plaid Cymru coalition is lamentable. After six years in charge, the main political advantage retained by the Liberal Democrats is that their tenure has been so muted that large numbers of Cardiff citizens appear still to believe that Labour forms the city’s administration. Indeed, Lib Dem publicity material, at the 2008 local authority elections and beyond, often appears designed to reinforce, rather than correct, that impression.

Now that that Houdini-like ability to escape the bonds of accountability is coming to an end. The cumulative failures to provide even minimally competent administration are mounting and multiplying in a way which has communicated itself to Cardiff voters. A great deal of politics is the tussle to align a set of policy preferences with a narrative which communicates a sense of purpose and direction to those whose support is sought at the ballot box. Few political parties, however, have set out to embrace the story of the Grand Old Duke of York for this purpose, or to have succeeded so powerfully in that attempt, than the Lib Dem leadership in Cardiff.

There is scarcely a policy mountain (or even hillock)  up which they have not marched their troops, without the sight of them in headlong retreat back down it again soon afterwards. Some of these reverses may have been over matters of direct interest only to a minority of Cardiff citizens, such as the recent reversal of a decision to sell off rare books from the city’s collection. Others, such as the abandoned attempt to close the highly successful Friary Centre sparked a wider response. Yet others, in the botched attempts at reform of the city’s schools and discarded policy of controlled parking zones, have had an even more extensive resonance.

None, however, are of such potential significance as the unceremonious dumping of the proposed Local Development Plan, announced at March’s meeting of the full council. Now, it will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the disgraceful violation of Bute Park to know that the Lib Dems, and their Plaid Cymru partners, are not fit to be trusted with anything as important as spatial planning.

It can certainly not surprise those of us who have been involved in resisting the never-ending supply of schemes which the local authority has brought forward (far too often successfully) for the erosion of the great green lung which runs through the city, and which is one of its major distinguishing features.

It beggars belief, however, that an administration which, on the one hand, constructed its LDP on a set of posturing paragraphs about green space should, at the same time, be hell-bent on driving a road right through the middle of one of the premier green sites in the United Kingdom.

The Local Development Plan fell because, despite the hundreds of thousands of pounds which the council has spend on consultants’ fees in its construction, it failed a whole series of tests set out by the independent Planning Inspector. Not only were the authority’s proposals deficient in housing, with some areas designated   for development located on land falling within the highest of the Environment Agency’s flood risk categories, but it failed in its plans for employment, waste and transport too.

The result is a set of short and longer term risks. In the short run, without an LDP in place to protect them, a far wider range of green field sites are now vulnerable to housing development. The longer term risk to the credibility of the city as a place which can do business will depend very much on how far the current administration is willing to mobilise a new coalition of interested groups and individuals, and then to work with that coalition in order, rapidly, to come up with a  plan which stands up to outside scrutiny.

Personally, I am instinctively allergic to suggestions that what we need here is a ‘vision’ for the future of Cardiff, but the intensely practical solutions which are required to address issues of housing, transport, employment and so on do need to cohere around some sense of the place we think our capital city should be in ten and twenty years time.

None of this it to pretend that devising a sustainable, socially just, economically prosperous future for Cardiff is an easy matter. It needs and deserves really serious debate and discussion in an open and informed democratic fashion. That way the quality of decision-making might be improved and the setbacks of the recent past might just be overcome.

Mark Drakeford is the Labour candidate for Cardiff West for the next National Assembly elections. He was the principal policy adviser to the First Minister Rhodri Morgan.

Also within Politics and Policy