Can we stop resenting our capital city?

Rhys David asks whether south-east Wales will follow Manchester in developing a brand that has world-wide resonance

In the north west of England ten local authorities, including Bolton, Bury and Stockport – important centres in their own right – are working together to promote the concept of a Manchester city region. They have become used to working together as partners over the past sixty years in developing the largely municipally owned Manchester airport into Britain’s de facto second hub, offering services to destinations around the world. Moreover, it is now at the centre of a grouping that also includes East Midlands and Stansted airports, a real second force in UK airports behind Heathrow’s BAA.

Significantly, too, the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities is led by the Peter Smith, chief of another proud authority, Wigan. The Association has come together to promote ‘Manchester’ as a brand that has been taken around the world by its two most famous football clubs.

Could such a development happen in south-east Wales now that the prospect of a city region based around Cardiff has been given a real chance by the forthcoming electrification of Valley Lines rail services? Or will residual resentment that Cardiff might be getting too much from it, or (spare the thought) even have its name in the title, lead to old parochialisms being given another stir?

“We will never be a Blue, ‘cos we’re Ponty through and through”, as they sing at Sardis Road to declare that  supporters  in Pontypridd will never give their loyalty to the Blues, the Cardiff-based rugby team less than ten miles away that is meant to represent the region.

A conference, Making a Welsh Metro Happen, organised by the IWA and partners from across south east Wales on Monday this week, suggests that among civic, political and business leaders at any rate the will to work together does exist. They have realised that a wider scale than the typical big city authority is needed if the platform for attracting and sustaining modern industries, and a wide range of other services from retail to healthcare is to be created. Just as importantly, they have realised that a city region approach is necessary if the economic benefits increasingly associated with city living – including higher incomes – are to be spread more widely.

It is not just Manchester that is demonstrating all of this. There is mounting evidence of the same from the city regions that are being developed elsewhere, including around the cities of Leeds, Sheffield, and Bristol.

In Wales the catalyst for this new enthusiasm has been the proposed extension of electrification beyond Cardiff and Swansea into the Valleys, and in particular the impressive work carried out by the consultant Mark Barry. His report A Metro for Wales’ Capital City Region, published by the IWA two years ago for the Cardiff Business Partnership, showed just how investment in improved rail services around the city and its hinterland could unlock the area’s too long buried potential.

Monday’s conference saw the release of an updated report A Cardiff City Region Metro which put added flesh on the regenerative possibilities that would come through much greater connectivity across the region. Instead of just making it easier and quicker for trains to access Cardiff along existing routes, the report details:

  • A Valleys Circle Line linking Rhymney and Merthyr and making Pontypridd a pivot at the centre of  the network.
  • Cardiff Crossrail using tram technology to bring people in the deprived east and west wings of Cardiff closer to jobs and other services.
  • Rapid bus transit systems to improve connections between parts of the area trains cannot reach.
  • The missing link – a short stretch of track – needed to make it possible to travel from Ebbw Vale not just to Cardiff but Newport as well.

If it is to come into being on the back of a new Metro, a Cardiff City Region will start with the advantage of being able to draw on the experience of other big transformative projects. These include the London Olympics, and the experience of cities around the world that have based their economic success on good public transport connectivity.

As Jon Hazelwood of landscape architects, Hassell, pointed out at Monday’s Metro conference, in virtually every case cities across the world ranked high in ‘liveability’ by international studies had metro systems at their heart.

The cost of the Welsh Metro scheme, as outlined in the latest report, would be considerable at £1.5 billion. Richard McCarthy, executive director of Capita Symonds and a former Treasury official with a close involvement in the London Olympics, told the conference that a highly robust case and delivery plan would need to be constructed. Its focus should combine professionalism, pace and certainty. It was vital, too, to do more than simply say the project would help to “regenerate”.

It had to be demonstrated that once the public purse was withdrawn, the process of economic revival would continue independently. The public sector would be critical in terms of finance but it could not be the sole investor. The Metro would need to rely on a cocktail of funding streams. As McCarthy said, “Such a scheme has to be reflected in increases in Gross Value Added, in more jobs and in higher property and land values. The economic value must be assessed, tested, and proved.”

The funding challenge will be severe, however. Another speaker, Michael Carrick of Aventa Capital, one of the parties behind the Circuit of Wales motorsport scheme for Ebbw Vale, made it clear the private sector would be wary of committing funds to a Cardiff Metro when there were other much simpler, more predictable projects to invest in with a much greater chance of delivering the returns the sector required than the economically challenged Welsh valleys.

Yet, as Shadow Secretary of State Owen Smith, had pointed out earlier, Wales should not be bashful about making the case in Whitehall for extensive public funding for such potentially transformative projects, given the long history of under-investment in Welsh transport assets. After all, as he and other speakers noted, London’s Cross Rail was costing £16 billion, High Speed 2 Rail £33 billion, and the Northern Line extension £1 billion. Even the rebuilding of Tottenham Court Road Station would cost not much less than the last sum. “We need to think big and think holistically because small changes will not work,” Smith told the conference. “We need big iconic projects that will show that we are moving forward.”

Jonathan Bray, director of the Passenger Transport Executive Support Unit, the group that brings together transport operators in England’s big cities, said we should not be over-obsessed with rail. Two thirds of public transport journeys were by bus, as were most High Street visits, and usage by young people was twice the national average. An integrated approach involving bus companies in the discussions and dovetailing bus services with new rail provision was needed to make a real success of transport investment on this scale.

There were other steps that would be just as vital. The Welsh Government needed to bring together all the actors involved in developing the Metro idea, including the local authorities, but also the private sector, academia, and potential funders. As Owen Smith pointed out, the urge – as often in Wales – to re-organise first, whether local government, transport groups or whatever, had to be strenuously avoided.

Other speakers were keen to stress that the current oversight body for transport in the region the South East Wales Transport Alliance (Sewta) – and potential client for a Metro scheme – would certainly need to be strengthened if it was to have a role. Whatever changes were made it was essential that the client authority and the delivery authority – as in the case of the Olympics – were separate bodies and that the delivery authority worked to an agreed budget set by the client.

So can the Cardiff region, Greater Cardiff, Cardiff and the Valleys – or even the more neutral ‘Siluria’, as one speaker, Roger Tanner of Caerphilly Borough Council, jocularly suggested – leverage itself into something greater rather than lesser than the sum of its parts? In short, can it emulate Manchester’s success?

If the evidence presented at this week’s Metro conference is anything to go by the will to act appears to be there and to be gathering momentum. As speakers made clear, however, the region will need to gather itself together to create a workable plan, and it will need to do so soon. Perhaps most importantly of all there would be need for strong leadership from the outset.

Rhys David is a Trustee of the IWA.

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