Can Cardiff follow Vancouver?

John Osmond describes how aspirations for a city region in south east Wales will receive an injection of Canadian experience next month

Sometimes a bit of serendipity helps when you’re organising an event. When we were putting together the programme for our forthcoming Getting Ahead Together – Connecting Cardiff and the Valleys conference we cast around for some pertinent examples of successful city regions from elsewhere in the world.

We managed to land two interesting experts – Thomas Kiwitt, Head of Planning with the Stuttgart City Region, and Professor Alan Harding, an expert on the Manchester city region. But to be frank, after that budget constraints stopped us looking further afield.

Then last week, manna from heaven, we were contacted by the Canadian Embassy in London to be informed that Gordon Campbell, their newly appointed  High Commissioner, would be in Cardiff on the same day as the conference, on 4 November. Would we be interested in finding a slot for him to speak? You bet we would. For Campbell is a former Mayor of Vancouver and has first hand experience of developing it into one of the leading exponents of city region development in North America.

Over the last few decades Vancouver has been reinventing itself as a sustainable city, reaching out beyond its boundaries to work closely with the rest of British Columbia on such issues as integrated transport – just the kind of message that Cardiff and the rest of south east Wales needs to hear.

In 1993 Campbell became Leader of the British Columbia Liberal Party. From 1994 to 1996, he was Member of the Legislative Assembly for Vancouver-Quinchena. From 1996 to 2001, he was Member of the Legislative Assembly for Vancouver-Point Grey. In 2001, he became Premier of the Province of British Columbia, until he retired from politics earlier this year in order to take up the post of High Commissioner in Britain. Last year the Fraser Institute ranked him the best fiscal manager among Canadian premiers.

Campbell was elected Mayor of Vancouver in 1986 and remained in office for three successive terms. One of the most significant projects during his period as Mayor was the redevelopment of Yaletown in Vancouver’s downtown. Formerly a heavy industrial area dominated by warehouses and rail yards, since the mid 1980s it has been transformed into one of Vancouver’s most densely populated neighbourhoods.

The marinas, parks, high rise apartment blocks (pictured), and converted heritage buildings make it one of the most significant urban regeneration projects in the whole of North America. It will be interesting to get Campbell’s perspective on the Cardiff Bay development and how that can be better connected with the rest of the city and the wider region.

For our conference addresses the challenges facing Cardiff and its neighbouring local authorities in south east Wales as they struggle to come to terms with the often contradictory pressures they face. These include the economic recession, public expenditure cuts, a looming housing crisis, climate change, transport congestion as well as the traditional social and political antipathy between the Welsh capital and the Valleys that has, paradoxically, gone hand in hand with their economic inter-dependence.

Recent proposals to electrify the south Wales Valleys railway lines could make a reality of a Cardiff city region. Such an investment, advocated in the IWA’s recent report A Metro for Cardiff’s Capital City Region, is now being considered seriously by both the UK and Welsh Governments. Indeed, the potential mechanism for raising the necessary capital was contained in the Welsh Government’s Programme for Government, published last week. It has a commitment to

“Establish a single Welsh Government Capital Infrastructure Fund and explore innovative ways of raising capital for investment in public service infrastructure.”

Such a project would change the physical relationship between the city and the Valley communities, tying them much more closely together. The benefits would be both transformative and mutual. Cardiff would gain a wider pool of labour to draw upon, making it more attractive to inward investors; while the Valleys would see substantial new investment in housing stock and in other parts of their private and public realm.

Will the population of this embryonic city region, its civil society and its political leaders seize the opportunity to re-imagine the region, or will traditional divisions prevail? To what extent are the capital city and its regional neighbours already crafting solutions to common problems? How much further and how much more quickly does such collaboration need to go? To what extent can a new, integrated, transport infrastructure change community relationships across the area? How should the democratic governance of the region respond? These are vital questions that will be addressed on 4 November.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

3 thoughts on “Can Cardiff follow Vancouver?

  1. But how can you establish a city region when the lazy thinking of Assemby civil servants results in the use of totally artificial NHS Trust boundaries as the basis for collaboration? City regions also require politicians with drive and vision and the present system doesn’t exactly encourage individuals with these attributes to come for. To achieve anything politicians need a democratic mandate from the electorate and this requires some sort of direct accountabilty between the electorate and the political leader which can in my opinion only be achieved through a directly elected mayor.

  2. Happy serendipity indeed!

    To have a FRESH input of ideas on how to develop SE Wales, how to integrate our impoverished but culturally rich valleys with the relative wealth of coast, from someone with experience of managing one of the most inspiring and desirable city region locations in the world has got to be welcomed – with open minds.

    How we organise our democracy and whether we need to elect a mayor (and would this really be value for money?) is certainly worthy of debate, but to get the visionary leadership this country needs we first need the inspiration and motivation that will make potential leaders and visionaries want to get involved in politics. Moaning about decisions made in the past and calling civil servants lazy thinkers is not adding value or progressing a useful debate, in my humble opinion.

  3. Bit of whistling in the gloom here. City region collaboration in SE Wales is hampered by Welsh political tribalism. Cardiff is LibDem controlled while the valleys are usually Labour controlled. The mutual suspicion is considerable. British Columbia, to my knowledge, does not have such warring tribes. Vancouver is also a much, much richer City than Cardiff, not least because of a huge influx of very wealthy Chinese after 1997. The cost of a South Wales metro completely dwarfs the WG Capital Infrastructure fund. You’d need to put at least two noughts on the end of the latter to make the former even a candidate.

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