Wales needs to re-evaluate Severnside concept

Mark Barry argues that the south west Britain economy needs some transformative new thinking

There is a debate, growing in intensity, related to the future economic development of the UK and how all of the country can contribute equitably to GDP, rather than  continuing its  dependency on the financial services of the  South East.  Lord Heseltine’s report on the subject last week only strengthens the case for some new strategic thinking

Underpinning any strategic change in direction must include a realignment of infrastructure investment to support growth in major conurbations in places liked Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle and yes Cardiff, south east Wales, Bristol and South West England – in other words the Severnside region.

The Severnside concept did gain some traction in the 1970s. However, the devolution debate and its implementation put that debate on the back burner and turned its proponents into heretics. However, perhaps with a new maturity from both Welsh Government and civic society and a recognition that on some strategic matters cooperation across the Severn is mutually beneficial, the time for Severnside has come again; not as a political entity, but as a means of collaborating and planning strategically for this inextricably linked region to deliver wider economic benefits. After all, this is a region of five million people containing two Russell Group universities and a broad economic base with potential for further growth and development. It also has, especially in parts of South Wales some serious economic challenges.

The signs are positive. I was involved in encouraging the establishment of the Great Western Partnership, which now includes an alliance of business groups, local authorities and transport experts along the Great Western Line.  The Partnership has successfully lobbied for the electrification of the Great Western Main Line to Swansea and has set out a case for further upgrades to deliver journey times between Cardiff and London/Heathrow of 80 minutes or less.

There is also growing optimism as regards the Severn Barrage.  This transformative project has the potential to create 10,000s of jobs and provide a significant source of dependable, renewable energy well into the 22nd Century.  In addition, the Davies commission is once again revising airport capacity and the role and location of a Hub airport in South East England. More than any other part of the UK his  has an impact on Severnside given its dependence on Heathrow.

So, now is time to develop a cohesive economic vision for Severnside that is aligned with the UK Government and South West England interest, and also sits easily within Welsh Government aspirations for the Welsh economy. There is much common ground and potential for  collaboration.

A strategic Severnside economic vision must be based on the establishment of 21st Century energy and transport infrastructure. This will have the barrage at its heart and dovetail its regeneration and transport connectivity with its undoubted renewable energy capability.

Given the barrage’s transport links, then Cardiff and Bristol airports could be within only 15/20 minutes on a dedicated rail shuttle. These two airports could effectively operate as one – Bristol on the short haul routes and Cardiff with a runway extension, could service long haul. This could provide part of solution to the capacity issues in South East England, by allowing Severnside to retain more of its demand with the region.

A rail link across the Barrage could also enable a high speed Severnside ‘Circle Service’, linking Cardiff, Bristol, Newport, Cardiff airport, Bristol airport and extend to Swindon in the east and Swansea in the west. In addition, the south Wales Metro project will augment the commitments to electrify the Valley Lines and create a truly joined up City Region in south east Wales.  The Greater Bristol region is also embarking on a major programme of enhanced regional connectivity over the next ten to fifteen years.  In essence, we begin to see the emergence of a connected Severnside region of nearly five million people that can rival the Bay Area around San Francisco in California.

The construction of the Severn Barrage will also result in Port Talbot having the capacity to become a major container port on western edge of Europe and augment the capacity already offered at Avonmouth.  Port Talbot’s location on the UK Motorway network and on the Great Western Main Line make this an ideal location develop a new deep water container terminal able to handle the new breed of large container vessels now coming into service.

This is the kind of ambition and strategic approach needed, something that will set the region on a course in the 21st Century, of economic growth and development to reverse what has been a slow inexorable decline in the post war period. A strategic Severnside approach would combines and integrates a number of projects that can transform the economies of south Wales and South West England.

The creation of the nascent Western Gateway Group of which I am a member is most welcome as a means of developing and advocating such proposals. However, in due course, it will need both the Welsh and UK Government’s to join forces to put the meat on the bones to create a Severnside vision that can help rebalance the UK economy.

Mark Barry is author of the IWA and Cardiff Business Partnership report A Metro for Wales’ Capital City Region - Connecting Cardiff, Newport and the Valleys

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