Forging a new connection between Cardiff and the Valleys

Stevie Upton says we must tackle a culture of ‘the lowest common denominator’ in Welsh strategic planning

The challenge of building an inclusive city region in south-east Wales is as great as the rewards for success. In an era of public sector funding cuts, coordinated public procurement could serve the twin goals of regional economic development and social justice. Likewise, collaboration on transport and housing policy could address pressing environmental concerns. Both could ease serious deprivation in communities across the region. But economic inequalities, fragmented governance arrangements and cultural resistance to closer coordination all militate against making this opportunity a reality.

These are the themes addressed in Forging a new connection: Cardiff and the Valleys, a collection of essays just published by the IWA. Based on a conference held last November, it deals with the economic and social problems of the 1.5 million people who live within one of the least economically competitive parts of the UK.

A major problem is creating the political will to drive forward a clear strategy. This was made clear in a consultants’ report to Cardiff County Council’s Executive Group in November last year. Strategic Planning for the Cardiff City Region, prepared by Roger Tym and Partners, criticised the South East Wales Strategic Planning Group’s operating arrangements. It described a culture in which:

“…consensus was everything, and the lowest common denominator (in favour of the least precise, most ‘flexible’, least contentious options) tended to be the only means of achieving it.”

At the IWA’s Connecting Cardiff With the Valleys conference that same month, which forms the basis of our report, Professor Kevin Morgan, of Cardiff University, said this described a condition that went to the very heart of Welsh political culture. The result was that we were ill-equipped to deal with constructive challenge, misconstruing it as disloyalty. Instead, our propensity was to seek consensus, however weak it might be.

Professor Morgan concluded that, too often, partnership – mistaken for an end in its own right – is pursued to the extent that sight is lost of the transformational outcomes to which it should be a means. If we are to make progress, moving beyond the current risk averseness and poverty of ambition that he identifies in the region, we must learn the lessons of more developed city regions worldwide.

Three of these – Stuttgart, Vancouver, and Manchester – are given detailed attention in Forging a new connection. It is a striking feature that, although they are far larger than south-east Wales, all three have managed to achieve governance arrangements which have produced a clear strategic direction.

The Stuttgart region has created a 90 member Regional Assembly to represent over 2.6 million inhabitants in 179 municipalities. In the Vancouver city region, regional planning and service delivery is undertaken on behalf of the 2.1 million inhabitants by Metro Vancouver, whose 37 Board members are drawn from among the elected representatives of the region’s 22 municipalities, one electoral area and one treaty First Nation. The region also instituted meetings of all elected representatives in a ‘Council of Councils’. Lesson number one is that joint working can be done.

Achieving consensus is possible, but it is by no means straightforward. When our conference considered collaboration between the local authorities of south-east Wales, the disbelief amongst delegates was audible. It was a sign, perhaps, of past failures, but it must not be allowed to be a portent of future attitudes. What, then, can our region learn from others about the first steps towards creating a successful city region?

First and foremost, we must not become immediately mired in trying to define notional boundaries for the city region, or in creating the institutions that might eventually govern many of its functions. Two main structuring elements of a functioning city region – distribution of resources and location of decision-making powers – are likely flashpoints, particularly where resources are scarce and a zero sum mentality is in effect. From Manchester to Vancouver the message is clear: the majority will always favour the status quo, and upsetting this will tend to raise opposition and prevent progress.

Instead, the focus should be on fostering strong leadership with a clear, shared vision for the region. This need not take the form of an all-encompassing city region strategy – and indeed too early an attempt to create such a thing could all too readily descend into disagreement. It is a process that can begin with just a few shared goals. The experience of Vancouver, a city region with a similar wealth disparity to that in south-east Wales, was that the region benefited from the richer districts listening to what poorer districts wanted, not telling them what they would be getting. Ultimately, however, action will speak louder than words. There will be no better motivator for further engagement than early evidence of success. In the same vein, efforts to move authorities away from the prevalent zero sum mentality, in which one authority’s gain is seen as another’s loss, are likely to benefit from ensuring that, in the first instance, all local authorities have something to gain.

This is not to deny a role for appropriate institutions and statutory powers at the regional level. The creation of Stuttgart’s Regional Assembly and Vancouver’s ‘Council of Councils’ (with, in the German case, an associated transfer of previously locally held statutory decision-making powers) has been instrumental in these regions’ ability to forge region-wide policies. Closer to home, the existence of a statutory city region planning tier in Scotland was highlighted at the conference as a means of fostering a culture of working across authority boundaries.

Rather it is to say that such structures should not, indeed cannot, be at the forefront of the city region debate. The hitherto robust partnerships operating in Manchester are the product of an evolutionary process lasting more than two decades. As collaboration grows, so specific opportunities to develop institutional capacity are likely to become more apparent.

If a city region strategy for south-east Wales is to be built on areas of consensus, what are the policy areas most likely to generate agreement? The three most likely are connectivity, housing and the environment. Each has the potential to coalesce opinion in the region.

Connectivity means developing better transport infrastructure both within the region and with the rest of the UK and beyond. Contributors to Forging a new connection address the need to create a south Wales metro together with ‘smarter’, more sustainable travel.

As the region’s population continues to grow, not only will pressure on its transport infrastructure undoubtedly increase, but it is widely accepted that Cardiff will not be able to accommodate all of the associated growth in demand for housing. For growth in the region to be sustainable, the interconnectedness of transport and housing policy will need to be good. In the Stuttgart region this has been successfully achieved. Housing development is concentrated along its light rail network, with the result that nearly 60 per cent of the population now lives within 600 metres of a railway station.

Forging a new connection ends with a chapter which examines how south-east Wales should be promoted. It argues that the city region is as much about the Brecon Beacons, the Vale of Glamorgan coastline and Newport as it is about Cardiff. Together, the strengths contributed by each of these places add up to a brand with the potential to compete in an international marketplace. Alone, they fail to compete.

There is an important point implicit here. This is an interdependent relationship. Cardiff is as reliant on its hinterland as the reverse. To argue that a city region approach is about prospering Cardiff alone is to undervalue the attributes of the rest of the region and to underestimate the value that can be added by combining them. This is not a zero sum game.

Dr Stevie Upton is the Research Officer of the Institute of Welsh Affairs. She is Editor of Forging a New Connection, available from the IWA at £10 (£7.50 to IWA members).

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