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

20 thoughts on “Wales needs to re-evaluate Severnside concept

  1. I’m dubious about the claim that we would be able to travel between Cardiff and Bristol airports in 15 minutes, we can’t even travel from Cardiff Airport to Cardiff city centre in double that time. There is simply no political will to invest in Welsh infrastructure.

    Why do you propose short-haul flights from Bristol and long-haul from Cardiff? Short-haul flights are not only more numerous, and hence generate greater economic activity at the airport, but are also more likely to be used for business travel, leading to greater economic development in the wider local economy.

    Bristol would gain disproportionately from this arrangement, is this indicative of the whole Severnside scheme? I’m not opposed to cross border co-operation, but the devil is in the detail.

  2. David Willis,

    Bristol airport is badly situated for long-haul flights and is rather tricky for pilots to fly into in less than perfect conditions. Cardiff has a longer runway, which would also need slight extending to reach America’s west coast, but it is a far cheaper option than making Bristol viable for long haul. As it stands, Cardiff has hardly any flights and it’s only long haul, to Miami, has just been cancelled by Monarch. The more time we waste pontificating the more Cardiff airport slides into oblivion, and that won’t be beneficial to the Welsh economy at all.

  3. Let us hope that something comes from such incentives, as clearly south Wales is in urgent need of anything that can bolster its plainly flagging economy, and more importantly hope for the future. The whole POINT of devolution was to get away from right wing/business ideaologies and into a nationalist/socialist paradise which didn’t need to worry about the grubby world of actually making money. The nationalist part of Wales is very happy as all our policies are now internalized and more intent on the A470, rather than improving road links directly into England where economic growth is going to take place in future years. The reality is that Cardiff is in direct opposition to Bristol/Bath, as can be seen from the airport business, and whilst one prospers, the other one is in terminal decline (not a pun). Perhaps we need to scrap devolution, except for administrative purposes and concentrate all our energies into London based governance, where all the real decisions are taken. It’s a sorry pass but I’m not sure that we are taken seriously by anybody, as we have a bunch of clowns running the ship, who are doing very nicely! I recently used both Bristol and Birmingham airports and found them very impressive in people/services whilst Rhoose looks like a DUMP and literally going nowhere.

  4. Good article Mark and bold proposals. I have been based Severnside for most of my life, given I was born and raised in Port Talbot, and have lived and worked in Bristol and Cardiff for a number of years. I think the Severnside region has the potential to emerge as a powerful engine in the economy – as mentioned, there is so much potential (2 Russel group Uni’s, 5M people etc.). In terms of Bristol having the edge over other areas in the region e.g. Cardiff, I think this would be inevitable though given Bristol’s size, history, wealth, and setting.

    THe concept of Bristol and Cardiff as a shared airport facility is an interesting one. To get journey times to around 15/20 mins between the 2 airports with a convenient high speed link would take some big engineering additional to the barrage itself, but do-able. Looking at the map it looks like it is 35-40 miles between the 2 airports via a barrage; 15/20 mins to do this is a journey time that to me would suggest that the psychological hurdle of convincing people that the 2 airports effectively operate as one is not insurmountable.

    But…I am opposed to a barrage! I am delighted that the Great Western Main Line has scooped electrification for South Wales, but I really think that the scale of a barrage represents too much of a step in big infrastructure, at the expense of a unique estuary environment. Above all, I think it is power that we don’t need – domestically we waste so much power, can’t we somehow rein it in before building such a massive structure – does the concept of a Severnside region hang on the building of a barrage?

    PS As an aside – being from Port Talbot – interested also about the proposals for a container port at Port Talbot. Seem to recall reading proposals along these lines somewhere before, either in the Wales Transport Plan, or in the Neath Port Talbot UDP?

  5. Why do I once again get the feeling that this will be a case of some being more equal than others; Wales once again getting the scraps from under the English table. Those who are supposedly the movers and shakers have absolutely no ideas at all except to create a North East Wales/Cheshire Region and now a Severn Side Region incorporating both South East Wales and South West England. I have another idea. How about building thousands of homes around Cardiff which aren’t needed by the local populace? Oh yes… that’s already on the cards. Nice try… but no cigar.

  6. “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.”

    Furthermore, the UK never really did depend on the South East of England. The City was a parasite living off the rest of the UK. In the Telegraph today… ‘The City to Cut 13,000 Jobs in 2013’ and in the Guardian ‘City jobs likely to fall to 20-year low’. The last few years was anomaly. Now, the parasites are moving on since the host is dying. It will take some readjusting but longer term, it will be better for the rest of the UK and particularly Wales. We can not get back to relying on proper industries… such as manufacturing.

  7. Mark,

    As always, you have submitted an interesting and thought provoking article, with themes around economic growth, collaboration and connectivity. Of course, fundamentally, ‘the art of the possible’ depends upon funding and ‘fundability’.

    As you say, Lord Heseltine’s Review concentrates on growth. Notably, it highlights the importance of functional economic market areas – city regions by another name. I agree that there is no reason why Bristol and Cardiff (as respective city regions) shouldn’t collaborate together to tackle economic imbalance manifested by London centricity. Hence, I understand the rationale behind your thinking for collaboration to deliver / evaluate the Severnside concept. Indeed, on the subject of collaboration, one of the 22 recommendations for city regions in Wales recommends that Cardiff and Swansea should collaborate.

    Stepping back for a moment from your concentration on significant infrastructure projects, I wanted to offer a number of reflective comments. Firstly, before we get to where you are going, I believe we need to have a clear VISION for the region, accepting that there will be different visions for different parts of Wales. In this regard, Bristol provides a useful lead. Secondly, let’s make haste slowly. Before rushing to promote a series of projects let’s procure a robust, independent (qualitative and quantitative) EVIDENCE base for the region which highlights its strengths and weaknesses. I suggest that the Manchester Independent Economic Review (otherwise known as the MIER report) is an exemplar in this regard. For example, on the one hand it recognises the strength of the airport. On the other, it highlights weakness in the form of regional economic inactivity. Thirdly, I suggest that a clear STRATEGY can only be developed and derived from a robust evidence base. Such a strategy would include an action plan (key projects including infrastructure projects as well as addressing economic inactivity etc., etc) and a clear statement on funding (or sources of funding). Fourthly, the strategy should concentrate on GROWTH that is smart, sustainable and inclusive. Clearly, we mustn’t forget the Brundtland definition, neither should we forget the need for energy resilience.

  8. We should be very wary of “jam tomorrow” promises that involve destroying natural resources that have taken centuries to come into being.
    The Severnside area is a unique natural environment which deserves protecting from rapacious commercial interests – it will be too late once something as hideous and destructive as the barrage is in place to undo it if we find there are significant knock-on effects that were ‘unforseeable’ at the time the development was agreed.
    We should learn from history – large scale developments that destroy our natural heritage in order to provide business profits are not worth the cost – once the natural environment is destroyed it is gone for ever.

  9. I think we need some big solutions to some rather large and long standing problems. The Welsh economy is underperforming the rest of the UK and Cardiff is actually way behind places like Bristol, Belfast, Leeds, Edinburgh, etc. We have connectivity issues and a struggling airport; the UK as a whole has energy supply and security issues. Some Severnside thinking and yes a barrage at the heart of strategy do merit serious consideration in my view. Not sure how we get out of such a deep hole without some big thinking.

  10. Mark Barry,

    You say that “Cardiff is actually way behind places like Bristol, Belfast, Leeds, Edinburgh, etc.” Last time I looked, all those places, and especially Belfast which is across the sea, are nowhere near to London, let alone involved in some twinning exercise with Bristol or anywhere else for that matter. You’ve just undermined your own argument and bolstered mine… that those in power in Wales aren’t thinking outside the box and looking for remedies that don’t involve getting the scraps off of the English table such as this Severnside region and the North East Wales and Cheshire City region.

  11. David

    You seem to have a narrow view and a pathological resistance to engaging/collaborating across the Severn? I could also challenge some of your economic assertions. (Eg The UK government is very much over-dependent on corporation tax from Financial services in the SE – and therefore so are all of our public services)

    I just want us to have some ambition and embrace the opportunities that exist – but in a way that is realistic and cognisant of the economic and geographic realities we face.

    I don’t think the emotive use of language such as “destroy” helps. Yes the estuarine environment will change with a barrage – but we are not pouring CO2 into the atmosphere for 100 years as a result or depositing toxins, sulphur, etc. or other nasty bi-products into the Severn. In fact the barrage is likely to reduce turbidity and result in a more diverse ecosystem and provide additional flood prevention for a large area of the upper Severn. I am not blind to the environmental concerns. However, I think they are a little overplayed and need to be weighed up against the economics needs and the mitigation measures that can be incorporated into the construction and operation of a barrage.

  12. “I could also challenge some of your economic assertions. (Eg The UK government is very much over-dependent on corporation tax from Financial services in the SE – and therefore so are all of our public services)”

    How does that work then with the UK government having to bail out the banking system to the tune of almost 1 trillion pounds? This will take years to repay. The City of London is a millstone around our necks. What kind of ambition does it show that you want to continue getting corporation tax, even if it’s forthcoming which I argue it will not be in the future, when most states on the planet don’t have anything resembling the monstrosity in London. And now, again because of City shenanigans, the UK government is involved with round after round of money printing just to keep things from literally collapsing and in the process of doing so, devaluing the currency and making goods more expensive and destroying savings. I would contend with your assertion that I have a narrow view. I want Cardiff and indeed Wales to be a dynamo in their own right and not relying on London or Bristol (or Chester) for wealth creation. There is nothing narrow about that.

    NB You didn’t respond to me questioning you on why Belfast and Edinburgh (and even Leeds) are doing better than Cardiff even though they are a long way off Bristol or London?

  13. David

    I don’t like the UKs dependence on Financial Services in the SE any more than you do. However, even after the bailout of a small number of badly managed banks, the value of tax take from that broad sector in that place is a drug we have to come off slowly.

    As regards the other cities….
    Belfast – traditional entrepreneurial city with strong activity in a many sectors.
    Edinburgh – long history as civic and corporate centre and big player in financial services
    Bristol – far broader and more mature corporate sector (just look at grade A office rental differential between Cardiff and Bristol)

    Cardiff is a small, new city (relatively) emerging from an industrial past with a large public sector and with a hinterland also heavily constrained by its industrial legacy. Huge strides have been made in recent years and there is a growing diversity in its economic bases. However, we need some economic steroids! Nothing wrong with working with Bristol (or anyone/where else) it helps our economy (and theirs as well).

  14. However, we need some economic steroids! Nothing wrong with working with Bristol (or anyone/where else) it helps our economy (and theirs as well).

    And maybe that’s where the problem lies and where you and I disagree. Cardifff and indeed, the Welsh economy needs to come off steroids (read public sector employment or other drug pushers from over the Severn). It needs to encourage and nurture it’s own businesses with the help of the Welsh Government implementing lower corporate taxes once they are brave enough to take on taxation powers. (Incidentally, aren’t the NI and Scots about to get these? Basket case Wales needs another referendum for these powers.) And of course, we need better infrastructure to link north and south, and Wales with the rest of the world. Ideally, we should have our own currency which would be a kind of valve… weakening when need be and strengthening at other times. But that’s for another day. Must go now, I’ve got a trade on shorting the Dow Jones. You know? Fall out from the economic wreckage created by the financial sector. It’s down hill from here until they print more wealth to avert the collapse. 🙂 But even that will catch up with them in the end.

  15. I have to declare an interest as both my children are working for major banks in London/Midlands and if the average public sector worker in Wales put in their hours/effort we would be in a lot healthier position. I tried to explain to them the concept of ‘flexi-time’ and they were amazed, how people can get 12 extra days holiday per annum by ‘fiddling’ time sheets. I only state above because the continual ‘bashing’ of Banks, particularly in London, without which our standard of living would be vastly reduced. Any one would think that its only British Banks that had troubles, that without public support would have collapsed, along with the western capitalistic system as we know it. The idea peddled on this space that WAG needs more financial powers is quite honestly a JOKE as they are presently incapable of turning our public services into efficient/affordable units of management. The welsh economy is by any objective analysis a ‘basket case’,and only kept afloat by subsides from ENGLAND and EUROPE,however in the latter case we have had a treasure in two installments and where has WAG spent the money and on what? With live a pretty ruthless world,and this mythology of internalising all our policy directions is going to lead to a cul-de-sac. Where in this fantasy world are we succeeding, as even in rugby which is a religious ‘revival’ most of our best players are leaving, and even our national team whilst beating pretty poor teams in NH, is light years behind 3 SH giants. We have created a welsh language MONSTER, in which the tentacles of its enforcers are getting more powerful day by day,and can only be a deterrent to people moving business to wales,particularly if they receive public money. In conclusion why would any business by pass Bristol/Bath/Swindon and come over Severn bridge to Cardiff, or Caerdydd as we must now call it???

  16. Howell Morgan,

    You begrudgingly accept that UK banks caused a collapse although you temper it by inferring that other foreign banks were also implicit. You are right but that doesn’t in any way exonerate UK banks with London being described recently as the global center of money laundering. I suppose that is a start though. You then talk of Wales being a ‘basket case’ economically which I’m unable to disagree with but you somehow link it to the existence and promotion of the Welsh language whilst ridiculing our rugby team on the way. That’s some leap of logic. You are to be applauded for having such an acute imagination. Have you ever tried blaming global warming on the Welsh language? It wouldn’t surprise me.

  17. David. the banks of USA led with investing/creating sub-prime mortgages, and ALL the banks in capitalistic world followed with toxic investments, but before the crash the wealth created was fantastic in LONDON and we had some of that money through the Barnett calculation. The IRISH banks were all bankrupted through investment in speculatory property investments which ultimately went wrong. All this was under New Labour 1997-2010, and supervisory system set up by Gordon Brown (hardly a Capitalist). We are living in LA LA land and instead of controlling/changing our public services, we are creating a greater problem in the enforcement measures of the WLB and other such bodies. We are in competition with other parts of UK,so there needs to be reduction in public spending on useless bodies. Global warming is another myth as climate has always changed,by but not man made. Welsh rugby is part of the myth we have created, in that we can beat the second/third raters but get no where near the very top. See Argentina and welsh regions in HC!!

  18. Another attempt to destroy the identity of Wales. These people have a not very hidden agenda to Englishify everyone in Wales.

  19. As a Welshman I find some of the comments on here are depressing. Until some people wake up and smell the coffee and get over their anti English socialist agenda – Wales will be forever whinging that on one hand we don’t get enough handouts and on the other England is holding us back. Why don’t you people get off your council office chair and get into the real world economy. I am presuming the comment on Wales getting its own currency was tongue in cheek – otherwise I think i will give up now.

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