Children inherit the cities their parents deserve

Geraint Talfan Davies assesses the Welsh capital’s plan for a new central business district

This week Cardiff Council has been unveiling plans for a new business district in the centre of the city, designed to have a major regional impact. Presentations were made to business leaders and property people in London on Monday, and to the business community in Cardiff yesterday. The plan has the backing of the Welsh Government, which may be a sign that its slightly fractious relationship with the city may be moving onto a smoother and more enlightened plane – itself a highly significant development.

The mass of visitors who have come to the city in recent years, especially for big sports and music events at the Millennium Stadium, can hardly have gone away with a very favourable view of the gateway to the capital city. The central railway station is desperately in need of expansion and renewal, while the down-at-heel square to the north has been blighted for the best part of the last decade while awaiting a strategic decision on its development.

In the late 1990s, when the building of the Millennium Stadium was being rushed through with minimal scrutiny in time for the 1999 Rugby World Cup, bold visions were peddled of a great continental piazza stretching from the station to the stadium. That vision suffered a fatal blow early on when a deal was done to build a multiplex cinema and leisure complex cheek by jowl with the stadium in order to balance the books on the stadium development. It has meant that Wales’s biggest millennium project can be viewed now only from the other side of the Taff to the west. The grand piazza dream also implied that the central bus station would be moved to the south side of the railway station, something that was never a comfortable option for the bus operators or, to be fair, for bus users.

That vision is now dead. In its place, the current plans – with the first phase scheduled for 2011-2015 – envisage the transformation of the cinema complex into a much needed conference centre for the city, the retention of the bus station on the north side of the railway station and its integration with hotel and office developments to be built after the clearance of virtually all existing buildings. The overall plan envisages the business district also stretching south of the station, along the east embankment between Butetown and the Taff, but the first phase includes only the completion and realignment of the office-based Callaghan Square.

Yesterday’s presentation in Cardiff had the twin aim of outlining the central business district plan as well as sketching the future for Cardiff Bus, the publicly-owned bus company which might be regarded as one of the city’s biggest and most successful social enterprises. This underlined the point made by councillors, officers and some of the stakeholders present, that solving the internal transport needs of the city are essential to its economic future. Upgraded electrified rail services into the city – as outlined in the recent Cardiff Business Partnership-IWA Cardiff Metro report –  and improved bus services within it will have to be seen as a total package if the hoped-for city-region impacts are to be realised.

The relationship between the city and the Welsh Government was fraught during the early years of the National Assembly, which was counter-productive for the development of both Cardiff and Wales. It is possible that this new scheme opens up a new era, as the emphasis shifts towards city-region based planning, albeit too slowly. It is also a recognition that Cardiff’s focus on developing the financial services and creative industries sectors is a sensible specialisation, given the clusters that already exist within the city.

But some big questions remain, some pertaining to the detail of the proposal, and some to wider planning across the region.

The regional implications of the scheme relate not only to rail development but also to housing. Although Cardiff Council is disputing Welsh Government assumptions that Cardiff’s population is set to grow by 42 per cent by 2030, growth at even half that rate must imply a regional approach to planning rather than the present system of separate local development plans for each of the ten authorities in the area. That is something that should be addressed urgently by the Welsh Government, especially now that it has the necessary law-making powers.

There are other more precise challenges. Despite the investment from the city and the Welsh Government, realisation of the scheme will require substantial private investment. In the present economic climate can sufficient private sector capital be attracted to make it work? That risk, was acknowledged by the city’s chief executive, Jon House, although he is surely right when he argues that if the city does nothing it will be overtaken by others, not least Bristol, as we emerge from recession. Something will have to be done to counter the likelihood that Bristol will be chosen as one of England’s enterprise zones. One of Cardiff’s roles must be to ensure that private sector investment crosses to this side of the Severn. And it must be supported in that role.

A second issue concerns rail investment. It is essential that Network Rail is fully on board for a complementary redevelopment of the railway station. Although the message yesterday was that this was the case, there were also hints that there might not yet be sufficient money on the table.

That raises a third issue: will Cardiff have the nerve and foresight to insist on higher architectural standards, both from developers and Network Rail, particularly during a recession? This is an issue that is too often ignored. Jon House has said that he wants Cardiff to be a ‘European exemplar city’ by 2015. That is an exciting but breathtakingly bold ambition, for two things mark out the best European cities, both of them seldom found in British cities. First, quality architecture gets a higher priority in continental Europe; and, second, public authorities take much greater care to create quality public spaces in cities, rather than allow public space to be cobbled from the remnants of land left over by developers.

Despite some good new landmarks, Cardiff has too much architecturally mediocre commercial development that reduces its potential distinctiveness in a world where inter-city competition is the order of the day. In terms of public space, it is worth asking where else in the city are we creating public spaces comparable with The Hayes, now utterly transformed as a result of the St. David’s 2 development. Artists’ impressions – always rather misleading – of the new scheme for the north side of the station do make one ask whether the area will be too busy, and lack sufficient quality public space to make the impact the city is seeking? Officials and citizens will need to vigilant.

Anyone seeking to make the Welsh capital an exemplar city would do well to remember the adage that children inherit the cities their parents deserve.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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