Putting Cardiff and the Valleys on the map together

Kevin Morgan explains why Wales is finally coming to terms with the age of city regions

Of the four depressed areas that were designated for economic relief by the Special Areas Act of 1934 – namely south Wales, north east England, west Cumberland and Clydeside – only south Wales retains this sad status. For the next round of EU regional policy, covering the period 2014-2020, West Wales and the Valleys will be classed as a ‘less developed region’ in the classification of the European Commission.

Shorn of the diplomatic language, this signals nothing less than a deep developmental failure in Wales and a devastating indictment of 80 years of British regional policy. Indeed, if nothing improves in the coming generation, the south Wales Valleys will have to confront the anniversary from hell: a hundred years of relative economic decline.

City Regions: from aspiration to reality

IWA National Economy Conference

Today at 2pm, Radisson Blu Hotel, Cardiff


Keynote speakers:

George Ferguson, Mayor of Bristol

Roger Lewis, Chair, South East Wales city region board

Andrew Carter, Deputy Chief Executive, Centre for Cities

Dr Elizabeth Haywood, Chair, Task & Finish Group on City Regions

Juliet Luporini, Swansea Bay City Region Board

Cllr Peter Fox, Leader, Monmouthshire Council

Neil McInroy, Chief Executive, Centre for Local Economic Strategies 

One of the most serious criticisms levelled at the 1934 Special Areas Act – aside, of course, from it being too little too late – was the fact that it severed the region from its towns by excluding Cardiff, Newport and Swansea from the coalfield, the area that had been targeted for relief. This rendered the task of economic regeneration virtually impossible because, by excluding the urban centres, the legislation excluded the focal points of development and ignored the inter-dependence between places within the region. In fact, south-east Wales presents a classic case of the spatial inter-dependence of regional economies.

Cities are not self-sufficient entities no matter how much they pretend to be, and this is especially true of Cardiff. Indeed, few cities have been as dependent on their regional hinterland as the Welsh capital. Without the dramatic growth of the coalfield in the south Wales Valleys, there would have been no commercial logic for the Bute family to build port facilities and, without export facilities, Cardiff would never have become a ‘coal metropolis’ in the early years of the 20th Century.

Although the city and the Valleys were mutually dependent from the outset, the nature of this relationship changed radically after 1920, when in employment terms the coalfield peaked. Thereafter the economic flows from the Valleys to the city were decreasingly of products in search of an export market and increasingly of people in search of a labour market. But these flows were not confined to the prosaic world of work. Over time these travel-to-work flows from the Valleys to the city were complemented by travel-to-shop, travel-to-travel and travel-to-play flows as Cardiff developed into a larger and more varied consumption centre for the region as a whole, particularly for young people.

If the centre of economic gravity was shifting from the coalfield to the coast, politicians in the coalfield were loath to acknowledge the fact. Instead of capitalising on the growing interdependence between the city and its hinterland, politicians in the Valleys were more likely to frame their interests in self-referential terms. Imagining regional development to be a zero sum game, they saw Cardiff’s gains as the Valleys’ losses, even though their respective labour markets were becoming increasingly entwined.

This zero sum mentality helps to explain the antipathy in parts of the Valleys to the development of Cardiff Bay, which was thought to have benefited from public investment that might otherwise have been deployed to regenerate the deprived communities of the upper Valleys. To allay these fears the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation  sought to present the Bay as a boon not just for the city but for the city-region as a whole, a strategy that might have been more credible if the region had an integrated public transport network that made connectivity routinely available to all.

The concept of the city-region made its Welsh political debut in 2004, when it was positively endorsed in the Wales Spatial Plan as a strategy for south east Wales The region was referred to as “the capital network” because the Welsh Government could not bring itself to say the Cardiff City-Region. The section on the city-region combined a factual statement about the present with an aspiration for the future, when it said:

“South East Wales is Wales’ most populous area. It is characterised by major economic and social disparities. The coastal zone is now the main economic driver, and its competitiveness needs to be sustained to help raise the economic potential of Wales as a nation. The heavy commuting flows between the Valleys and the coast mean that the area functions as an interdependent but unplanned urban network. This gives rise to pressure on the transport infrastructure. Cardiff is a relatively small capital city. It is important for Wales as a whole that Cardiff becomes significant internationally, but to do this requires a much greater ‘mass’ of population and activity. Already, Cardiff has a close functional relationship with its immediate neighbouring towns, particularly Barry, Pontypridd and Caerphilly. This needs to be built on constructively, making Cardiff the focal point of a coherent and successful urban network in south east Wales, enabling it to share its prosperity… The area will function as a single networked city-region on a scale to realise its international potential, its national role and to reduce inequalities”.

Had the concept of a ‘single networked city-region’ been acted upon in 2004, Wales would have found itself in the vanguard of city-regionalism in the UK. It wasn’t and Wales was reduced to being a laggard instead of a leader. Although the ten local authorities in south east Wales have been collaborating in a loose fashion on a wide range of activities – such as public transport, spatial planning, economic development and waste management – this fell well short of what was happening in leading city-regions, like Manchester in England and Stuttgart in Germany.

Why is Wales embracing the city-region concept now? The answer has three parts – intellectual climate, cross-border competition and a new political commitment on the part of the Welsh Government.

As regards intellectual climate it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that governing élites around the world have been gripped in recent years by what we might call metrophillia, such is the pro-urban bias in developmental narratives today.  Some of the most influential books on economic development – like Triumph of the City by Ed Glaeser, and The Metropolitan Revolution by Bruce Katz for example – have unreservedly extolled the role of cities and city-regions in promoting wealth, health and even happiness! To support this pro-urban policy bias, economists have pointed to the strong correlation between productivity, innovation and agglomeration, furnishing an economic rationale for burgeoning urbanisation.

Cross-border competition also played a part because the Core Cities in England began to embrace the city-region concept after Labour’s preferred model of English devolution – elected regional assemblies – was defeated in the north-east referendum in 2004. Through a series of bespoke ‘city deals’ with Whitehall, the Core Cities have been acquiring new powers to regenerate their metropolitan economies, putting urban areas in Wales at a competitive disadvantage.

The combination of intellectual climate and cross-border competition revived the city-region concept in Wales, where policy-makers were receptive to anything that could boost the fortunes of the Welsh economy. The most tangible sign of this new political commitment came in Autumn 2011, when the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport Edwina Hart asked Dr Elizabeth Haywood to chair a City Regions Task and Finish Group to explore the applicability of the city-region concept to economic development in Wales (a group of which I was a member).  Published the following July, the report issued a total of 22 recommendations, the most important of which was the green light given to the creation of city-regions in south east Wales and Swansea Bay.

As well as identifying potential economic benefits, the report argued that a city-region would also allow for a more strategic approach to planning, learning and skills, transport and housing allocation, all of which needed to be planned on a regional rather than a local scale. The thrust of these arguments was generally well received, a positive reaction that was confirmed in October 2012 when a plenary debate in the National Assembly demonstrated broad cross-party support for the conclusions of the City Regions Final Report. This was the surest sign that the age of the city-region had officially dawned in Wales.

The end of the beginning of city-regionalism in Wales was the launch of the City-Region Boards. The Swansea Bay Board was launched on 18 July 2013 comprising the Leaders of the four local authorities in the area together with four representatives from the business community and two from the higher education sector. The launch of the City-Region Board in South East Wales was more protracted, not least because there were ten local government Leaders in the region but only four local government seats on the board. In the event Mrs Hart agreed four local government representatives with Councillor Bob Wellington, the Leader of the Welsh Local Government Association.

Having resolved the local government dilemma, the Minister unveiled the full City-Region Board in a statement to the National Assembly in November 2013 and listed in the Panel on the facing page.

One of the many imponderables facing the new City-Region Boards is the impending report from the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery chaired by Sir Paul Williams. This is widely expected to recommend a radical reduction in the number of local authorities in Wales – from the current 22 to fewer than half that number perhaps. The uncertain fate of local government structures was one reason why Mrs Hart decided to leave the operational details of the City-Region Boards to be fleshed out at a later point in time. But such details – particularly with respect to which powers they will assume and what resources they will have at their disposal – will make or break these fledgling bodies. The Welsh Government has a dual role to play in shaping the future evolution of city-regionalism because, as the Haywood Report said, “it must both drive the city region agenda and delegate powers and responsibilities to the city regions”.

It would be a great shame if the political agenda in south east Wales got side tracked into a petty squabble about the name of the city-region. Around the world city regions tend to brand themselves around the name of the largest and best known city, which suggests that the name ought to be the Cardiff City Region rather than the anonymous placeless landscape conjured up by the Wales Spatial Plan, which referred to “the capital network”.

A more ambitious agenda would be for the city-region debate to focus on substantive issues, such as social, economic and ecological projects that could have a transformative effect on the region’s health, wealth and wellbeing. Three such projects spring to mind.

Top of the list of potentially transformative projects is the south Wales Metro, which is so much more than a mere transport project. As Mark Barry and his colleagues in the Metro Consortium have argued, the Metro affords an opportunity to develop denser and better connected communities around Metro stations, thereby reducing car use and relieving road congestion.  Among the many ingredients needed for a successful Metro, innovative finance and political consensus are arguably the most important and the City Region Board would be well advised to address these two issues without delay.

If better connectivity is the first priority, then a close second is innovation and economic development. A potentially transformative city-region project in this category is the new Innovation Campus being designed by Cardiff University, with its twin sites at Maindy Road and Heath Park. Although the Innovation Campus is physically located in Cardiff, it is designed to be a resource for the city, the region and the nation as a whole because, with its accent translational research, it will help to pioneer the knowledge economy across Wales. Among other things, it will also help to secure funds from Horizon 2020, the EU’s research and innovation programme, offering commercial opportunities to firms throughout the country.

Green infrastructure played a major role in fashioning the Stuttgart city-region because it allowed municipalities to integrate their local parks into a seamless regional landscape park, a process that did much to overcome the parochialism of local mayors. The Valleys Regional Park presents a similar opportunity to local authorities in south east Wales because, as well as being an untapped resource for health and wellbeing, it is a major piece of green infrastructure that needs to be viewed and valued in terms of its potential contribution to eco-system services.

While each of these projects addresses a different theme – namely connectivity, innovation, and sustainability – their common denominator is the fact that they are projects that have transformative potential on a city-regional scale as opposed to projects of purely local significance.

Kevin Morgan is a Professor in the School of Planning and Geography at Cardiff University, where he is the Dean of Engagement. He is also the City-Region adviser to Edwina Hart, Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, and adviser to the Board of the South East Wales City Region.

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