John Osmond says this week’s announcement by Economy Minister Edwina Hart is the last hope for the Valleys.
Economy Minister Edwina Hart’s announcement of the Board for the South East Wales city region last week provides hope that this vital project might finally have found a pair of legs.
The problems the initiative confronts is immense. The Valleys hinterland around Cardiff are the major obstacle to putting together a coherent economic strategy for Wales as a whole, and that has been true since the 1930s. It’ll be recalled that along with north-east England, west Cumberland, and Clydeside, south Wales was one of four regions designated by the 1934 Special Areas Act. South Wales – specifically the Valleys – is the only one that still warrants that designation. It is still classified as a ‘less developed region’ by the European Commission and so qualifies for convergence funding.
Two closely related factors make the Valleys unique in economic regeneration in Britain. One is that nothing on any scale has been found to replace coal mining as an economic driver. And secondly, there has continued an economic, social and cultural separation of the Valleys from Cardiff. This has been the central failure of Welsh governance for close on a century.
Now the creation of a city region infrastructure provides perhaps the last and best hope that this grievous failure might finally be overcome. The members of the city region Board, shown in the panel below, bring together a diverse group from the worlds of business, local government, and academia. They will need to forge a shared vision that entails putting facts on the ground rather than merely adding to the miasma of committee and commission reports that afflict the governance of Wales.
Board of the South East Wales City Region
Roger Lewis Chief Executive, Wales Rugby Union, Chair.
Cllr Russell Goodway, Cabinet Member for Finance and Economic Development, Cardiff Council, Vice Chair.
Professor Colin Reardon, Vice Chancellor, Cardiff University, Vice Chair.
David Stevens , Chief Operating Officer, Admiral Insurance.
Matthew Hammond, Wales chair, PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
Dan Langford, Group marketing and communications director, Acorn Recruitment.
Ann Beynon, Wales Director, BT.
Cllr Bob Wellington, Leader Torfaen County Borough Council.
Cllr Brendan Toomey, Leader Merthyr Tydfil Council.
Cllr Peter Fox, Leader Monmouthshire County Council.
Cllr Bob Bright, Leader Newport City Council.
Professor Julie Lydon, Vice Chancellor, University of South Wales.
Professor Brian Morgan, Professor of entrepreneurship and director, Creative Leadership and Enterprise, Cardiff Metropolitan University.
John Phillips, Regional Secretary, GMB Union.
Professor Kevin Morgan, Cardiff University
Statements made last week by both Edwina Hart and Roger Lewis, the Welsh Rugby Union chief executive who is chairing the Board, demonstrate an awareness of the challenge. However, what is complicating the emergence of a clear focus is the imminent publication of Welsh Government’s Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery, chaired by Sir Paul Williams, former Chief Executive of Bro Morgannwg NHS Trust. Its terms of reference includes 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”. It’s widely assumed that part of the Commission’s agenda is a reduction in the Welsh counties, not least because First Minister Carwyn Jones has gone on the record in recent weeks saying that 22 authorities are unaffordable.
What this will mean for the ten authorities that are embraced by the South-East City Region Board will be a major factor in how it takes its work forward in the New Year. The Board will have its first outing next month and its agenda has already been set by the City Regions task force report, commissioned by Edwina Hart and chaired by Elizabeth Haywood, that was published in July last year. This had the following main recommendations:
- 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.
Governance is at the heart of all of this. Nothing will happen in practice without a statutory executive authority charged with implementation and provided with an adequate budget. The first priority is for an Executive Transport Authority to be created to implement the Metro project. It is encouraging, therefore, that Roger Lewis has already acknowledged this as a priority. Interviewed earlier this week he described the proposed £2 billion integrated transport Metro project for the region as “critical” adding that, “This project has to be one of the early priorities, starting with creating a dynamic around the board and ensuring that all of the members share that transport vision.”