Edwina Hart poised to tackle Welsh parochialism

John Osmond says a forthcoming announcement on a city region for south east Wales will transform the economy.

Edwina Hart is poised to knock some local government heads together in south-east Wales, and make what will be a defining decision in her long career as a Minister in the Welsh Government. In the next few weeks she will establish a new city region political structure for south east Wales, radiating outwards from Cardiff to embrace Bridgend, the Rhondda, Merthyr and Aberdare, Caerphilly, Blaenau Gwent, Pontypool and Newport.

After decades of tribal infighting between the local authorities of these areas the Minister for the Economy, Science and transport has lost patience. Local authorities have failed to act in their own interest to provide effective strategic planning for transport, housing, co-ordination of further education, and economic development. Now she is going to act for them.

Back in 2010 Professor Kevin Morgan, an ardent proponent of a city region for south-east Wales, told an Innovation seminar at Cardiff University:

“Cities all over the world are the engines of their regions and it is sad for me to see what has happened in South-East Wales over the last twenty years where I have been struck by the parochialism of the mind set and the poverty of ambition.”

That was a wake-up call that our local government leaders across south-east Wales should have acted upon. Of course, they ignored it. They’ve also largely ignored a report City Regions in which Kevin Morgan’s stark warning was quoted, commissioned by Edwina Hart in 2011 and published in July last year. I suggest they dig it out and give it a quick scan, since most of its trenchant recommendations will soon be announced as government policy. If they do they should turn first to paragraph 154:

“There is a need to reject parochial or tribal approaches in favour of a win-win attitude to working across political and defined boundaries to make a city region work.”

The task force that authored the report, chaired by Elizabeth Heywood, also referred to a note from an IWA conference on Connecting Cardiff and the Valleys in 2011 that tribalism was an obstacle to overcome. It also quoted Welsh rugby coach Warren Gatland who had told the Independent in an interview that, “There is a huge amount of tribalism and parochialism in Wales, and it breeds mistrust” (25.1.08). The report added:

“Wales has long suffered from an ‘us and them’ approach: ‘us’ versus England; south Wales Valleys versus Cardiff; Cardiff versus Swansea; North versus South. The relevance of the city region concept to all those in it is key to ensuring by-in and potential success. Using Cardiff as an example, there has been recent historical tension between the city and surrounding valleys that is perceived as gains for one against loses for other. The result was antipathy in the Valleys towards the development of Cardiff Bay. If Cardiff is acknowledged as a polycentric city region with important settlements throughout, this will encourage and support investment in the Valleys, the hinterlands and the city itself.”

Key recommendations in the report that will be echoed in Edwina Hart’s forthcoming announcement will be:

  • A passenger transport Executive/Authority should be established in the South East Wales City Region, with similar powers, funding and responsibilities to those in English city regions … we recommend that the Valleys Metro is adopted as a key theme for a South-East Wales City Region.
  • An over-arching south-east Wales strategic planning tier should be put in place to ensure the city region hinterlands benefit from the growth of Cardiff and have a voice in cross-boundary development.
  • Housing planning, like spatial planning must be organised at a city region rather than local authority level and linked to transport planning to facilitate commuting and leisure travel and prevent the isolation of more remote communities.
  • Consideration should be given for the idea of pubic sector landowners leasing or endowing land for housing to make development more economically attractive.
  • Skill gaps should be addressed on a city region rather than an individual local authority basis to reflect the private sector’s approach to the geography of their labour markets.
  • Universities should be engaged as part of the city region approach to promote wealth creation, growth, and high skilled value added jobs.

Edwina Hart’s forthcoming announcement will largely pre-empt the work of the Welsh Government’s Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery, chaired by Sir Paul Williams, former Chief Executive of Bro Morgannwg NHS Trust, which is due to report by early next year. Its terms of reference include a call for “greater simplicity in governance and delivery arrangements for services in order to enable effective integrated planning and delivery for people in Wales”.

Mrs Hart is unlikely to have any difficulty in addressing the City Regions report’s recommendations listed above. However, another two are more problematic. The first relates to funding.  Elizabeth Haywood’s report urges that the Welsh Government should continue to press for borrowing powers to enable major capital projects to be undertaken within the city region – in particular the Valleys Metro.

These, of course, post-Silk are subject to the current negotiations with the UK Treasury. Beyond that the report made a number of helpful suggestions around EU funding, and the borrowing that could be levered through local authority investment and pension funds. However, its main recommendation is that Wales should take a fresh look at the priorities it sets for use of the post-2014 EU structural funds and the way its programmes are implemented. As the report recommended, the south-east Wales city region should take advantage of the next EU funding round to ensure their strategic application. It should:

“…agree a small number of regionally significant projects to which EU funds can be applied as part of the finance package, and move away from the traditional approach of small, often competing projects driven by suppliers rather than demand.”

It suggested that:

“The Welsh and UK Governments argue the case (as Germany is doing) for greater flexibility in the use of EU funds, in particular with regard to connectivity.”

A problem for Edwina Hart in this delivery area is that she has to form an alliance with Finance Minister in the Welsh Government Jane Hutt, and more problematically, with the UK Government at Westminster.

A further challenge is the delivery vehicle and its governance arrangements that will make a reality of a south-east Wales city region. In many ways this is the most important matter for Edwina Hart to get right. Here Elizabeth Haywood’s task force was less than trenchant. It recommended that the city region itself “should be free to explore best-fit governance arrangements.”

Was that a hint that the best way forward was to allow the existing local authorities within the city region to work out the answer? If Edwina Hart allows them that role, she will give tribalism its head and fall at the first hurdle.

John Osmond is Editor of ClickonWales.

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