John Osmond says improving Welsh communication links will define our economic future
Tolstoy’s famous opening to his novel Anna Karenina “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion” could equally apply to the lives of nations. “All successful economies are alike but an unsuccessful economy is unsuccessful after its own fashion,” we might say. The modern Welsh economy is certainly unsuccessful. Not only are we the worst performing economic region within the UK in terms of GVA per head, but we are close to the bottom of the EU prosperity league tables. What is distinctive about us that can provide an explanation?
A number of reasons come to mind. Nearly 200 years ago we were at the cutting edge of the world’s first industrial revolution and in a profound sense have never got over it. The inheritance of that pioneering growth of coal mining and iron and steelmaking is still with us, but in largely negative ways. The wealth was removed and all we have left, apart from Port Talbot, are a few heritage sites, albeit that some are world-class. The zenith of Welsh prosperity occurred a century ago in the Edwardian years leading to World War I. It is no coincidence that the period also saw the creation of Cathays Park and our first era of nation building, with the founding of the National Museum, National Library, and the University of Wales.
What was also distinctive about Wales in those times was how connected it was, both internally and with the wider world. In 1913 it was possible to travel from any substantial settlement within Wales to any other by the most important mode of travel of the day, the railways. As far as the outside word was concerned Cardiff was linked to every other major coastal city in the world by ships that carried Welsh steam coal across the globe.
Since then, however, the decline in our communications has been so steep that we can make claim to be the most disconnected part of the British Isles. It takes four hours to travel from north to south Wales by a train that passes through England for much of the journey. By road it takes nearer five hours. As for our links to the outside world they are precarious. Our main railway in the south passes through a tunnel that is prone to flooding. Our main motorway passes through a pinch point at the Brynglas tunnels where in recent years we have more than once experienced an incident that has brought the entire southern economy to a shuddering halt. As for air travel, most of us have no option but to travel to far flung Heathrow and Gatwick for our long haul connections.
It is apposite, therefore, that the current issue of the IWA’s journal the welsh agenda highlights two schemes being promoted by the IWA that have the potential to transform this picture of a languishing back water. At first sight both might seem so big and ambitious as to be unattainable. Our latest offering is for a new international airport to serve the whole of southwest Britain, but located along the Severn between Newport and Chepstow. It might seem churlish to be putting forward such a notion at the very time the Welsh Government is in the process of acquiring ownership of Cardiff airport. Yet, as the authors of the proposal point out, the two are perfectly compatible. Indeed, public ownership of Cardiff airport makes a new airport on Severnside more feasible.
the welsh agenda also devotes a good deal of attention to another scheme which has the potential to transform the prospects of the Welsh economy, a Metro for the Cardiff City region. We first published detailed proposals for this enterprise two years ago and it is remarkable how swiftly it has entered mainstream thinking. It is the subject of a task force that will shortly report to Economics Minister Edwina Hart who has recently, and appropriately, had transport responsibilities added to her portfolio. At Welsh Labour’s Spring conference in Llandudno she pronounced that the scheme was receiving her positive attention.
In our featured articles on this topic Professor Calvin Jones, of Cardiff Business School, says that achieving a Cardiff Metro will not be a panacea for the Welsh economy. But as he also says, “If we build it, and build it well, we will tell the world we care about things. About the climate, yes, but also about the importance of distinctive place, about our less advantaged residents and about actively planning for a positive future.”