An idea that has come of age?

Rhys David reports on a conference that brought to Wales some of the best ideas about how to create a successful city region.

The Valleys needs a big idea, Professor Steve Fothergill of Sheffield Hallam University told an IWA conference on  the Valleys three years ago. He was not sure what the big idea was but it was vital to come up with one if south east Wales was to achieve the growth needed to relieve the poverty still found across the area, and in particular in the Heads of the Valleys.

Another IWA conference at the end of last week focused on  city regions, the idea that dared not speak its name in Wales three years ago but which now has the imprimatur of the Welsh Government, following the announcement also last week by Edwina Hart, the business and enterprise minister, that Dr. Elizabeth Haywood had been asked to chair a task-and-finish group on this very topic.

So, is this the big idea Professor Fothergill insisted was necessary?  Is a city region the way to enable Cardiff to compete more effectively with other key British and European cities and spread some of the wealth and impressive jobs growth it has secured in recent years to parts of the Valleys still stricken by the loss of jobs in the coal industry and more recently in light industry?

Jon House, chief executive of Cardiff and one of the panellists at the conference, declared that he thought we were now on the cusp of something important that could be taken forward. Professor Kevin Morgan, of Cardiff University, and one of the speakers, went further, saying that he was excited by all he had heard at the event from a variety of speakers from within Wales and from Stuttgart, Vancouver, and Manchester.

The city region concept has been gaining traction in recent years as it has become apparent that big cities are increasingly where people want to live and work and that the most successful  can leverage benefits for a wide surrounding area through closer integration. A blurring of boundaries between cities and their hinterlands was occurring, the conference was told.

“The economy has changed from one based on natural resources. Large firms have been replaced by small ones. The city is where people can change jobs easily and find the sort of housing they want. Big dense cities are now becoming more important than the nations in which they are based,” Professor Alan Harding of Manchester University told the conference.

According to Prof. Harding Manchester, with its strong creative industry and financial sectors, has re-orientated as well as re-invented itself over recent years. Whereas it used to be the hub for a series of textile and engineering towns to the north – Bolton, Bury, Rochdale, Wigan, and Oldham – it now faces south where the university and the municipally-owned airport’s tremendous success have stimulated growth.

The towns in the north represent in some respects Manchester’s “Heads of the Valleys” with the same problem of town centres that will probably never recover, according to Professor Harding argued, but they had bought into the Manchester vision and now saw its success not as a competitive threat but as a route to their own regeneration. “These places don’t have the assets or the rationale to pull through. Their future lies with Manchester and they know it.”

Productivity and innovation were strongly correlated with agglomeration, Kevin Morgan warned, so that cities that could establish a bigger footprint, without necessarily taking over their neighbours, would grow at the expense of similarly sized cities that failed to do so. In Professor Harding’s words the world had become “spikier” – the successful were becoming more successful and the less successful were falling even further behind.

If it is accepted that for all these reasons south-east Wales needs to move to a stronger city region concept involving much greater levels of integration between local authorities in the area in planning, transport, waste management, economic development and tourist promotion, how do we get there?

The former mayor of Vancouver, Gordon Campbell, now the Canadian High Commissioner in London, stressed the importance of securing buy-in from those involved and, just as importantly, creating a vision for twenty years hence rather than trying to solve the problems of the previous two decades. In an aside that resonated with the 100 strong group of attendees at the conference in Cardiff’s City Hall he pointed out that 2030 was now closer than 1990, a date that still seems not very far away to most people.

In British Columbia 18 regions had been brought together with Vancouver in an attempt to create a sustainable city region that would benefit from the global brand of Canada’s third city. Key to securing co-operation, however, had been taking cities elsewhere in the province along with the process.

“You have to change from telling people what we want to listening to what they want. As mayor of a rich district [Vancouver] I tried to show I cared about what others were doing. I was an advocate for our second largest city Surrey and became known as the best mayor Surrey ever had! We thought about where we were going over the next 20 years and asked what assets other places had that complemented ours. If you cannot find a way to give back, you will fall by the wayside.”

One of the mechanisms used was a council of councils which brought together about 150 representatives from the region’s local authorities to talk about issues such as transport, land use, economic activity  and to secure “buy-in” before a start was made on developing a strategy. “As a result we built some literacy around what we were trying to accomplish. If you start talking about strategy before you know where you are going you will get nowhere.”

Is this an agenda we could begin to implement in Wales? There was general agreement from speakers and audience that some of the existing governance structures in Wales are not fit for purpose and need a radical overhaul. Planning, in particular, was seen as an area where too many local authorities were working in isolation.

In housing, for example, Cardiff had yet to finalise its local development plan and was not building family housing while two neighbouring authorities Rhondda Cynon Taf and Caerphilly were building what was essentially housing for Cardiff commuters. Opinion differed on whether this in a roundabout way made sense or not.

Rodney Berman, leader of Cardiff council, argued that the lack of an overall framework for the region meant too much land was actually being allocated for housing and industrial development, potentially depressing returns and discouraging  property investors. Current planning polices are working against economic development,” he argued.

If a move to a new governance structure for southeast Wales was to be created, two further prerequisites were identified by several speakers. Firstly, there had to be strong leaders and they had to speak for the whole region. In Manchester, it was pointed out, the chief spokesman for the region in recent times had represented Wigan but had not been reticent when banging the drum for “Manchester”, the brand within which Wigan now saw itself as largely subsumed. Secondly, there had to be a robust, single evidence base on which to build the vision that was not open to serious challenge.

Richard Thomas, managing director of Cardiff’s promotional arm, Cardiff & Co pointed out that Cardiff was already framing itself regionally. We talk about a city of 1.4m people not about a small city [of 320,000] and we talk about a much wider area, including the Brecon Beacons. Attractions in Newport, Caerphilly and elsewhere were included in our conversations.

The brand that Cardiff promoted was connected to major events, and to is capital city status and business in the city saw the advantages to be gained from associating with this brand. “Cardiff is the brand that is now most likely to grab attention if you are a tourist, a conference organiser or an inward investor, not south Wales, so it needs to be the “attack brand” for south Wales as a whole. We need to have the courage to seize the opportunity.”

The more sceptical response to the city region concept which might come out of the Valleys was outlined by another speaker, Roger Tanner, chair of the Valleys Renaissance Group, who mentioned among other options a polycentric approach recognising the existence within the Valleys of a number of sizeable towns that could be made focal points for growth.

South East Wales had two big cities not one, he argued and was also influenced by Bristol; there were several Travel to Work areas in south east Wales and not just Cardiff; the poorest lived furthest away from Cardiff and were least likely to benefit from a strategy that saw the city as the prime engine of growth; and the transport network remained inadequate for distributing people around and across the region. A strategy that developed multiple corridors and inter-linkages as well as multiple towns was needed.

On one issue there was complete agreement across the conference. The importance of pushing ahead not just with electrification of rail lines to Cardiff (or Swansea) but the introduction of a modern transport infrastructure across the entire railway network converging on Cardiff from Maesteg in the west to Ebbw Vale in the east. Transport was the way to drive the agenda forward.

Thomas Kiwitt, head of planning at Stuttgart City Region, Cardiff’s twin city had emphasised in his talk the vital role played by the very comprehensive network of rail lines linking Stuttgart with towns and villages across its region. These provided quick and easy access from across the region not just to Stuttgart but to its trade and exhibition centre and to its airport.

Gordon Campbell, under whose leadership a successful city region has been put in place in Western Canada, offered a mantra earlier which seemed to sum up the way ahead. “If you focus on agreement and put your resources where you agree you will run out of resources before you run out of agreements. You have to jump over disagreements because there will be things you agree on and you still will not be able to do all of them.”

Rhys David is a trustee of the IWA. He writes on economic and business affairs

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