Severnside is back on the agenda

Geraint Talfan Davies reports on what may have been an historic public discussion between the leaders of Cardiff and Bristol

One of my earliest tasks as a young journalist in the Western Mail was to report on the publication in 1971 of a report published jointly by the Welsh Office and the UK’s Environment Department on the feasibility of planning a Severnside region. It was prompted by challenging population forecasts that foresaw a need for several new cities in the UK. When British fertility rates started to plummet the concept withered on the vine.

Four decades on, in Cardiff last week, I sensed a revival of the idea as the new leader of Cardiff Council, Phil Bale, and the elected mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, engaged in a public session in front of an audience drawn from the business communities of south Wales and the West of England. By coincidence, perhaps, fertility rates are on the rise again.

This was not a debate as such, as both men were in total agreement on the need for urgent cooperation between both sides of the channel if they are not both to be left behind by the development of the North of England proposition around Manchester and Leeds.  In recent months, there has been something of a bidding war between the Conservative and Labour leaderships, to offer goodies to the north of England – although far less devolution of funding than was proposed in two reports, the one by Lord Heseltine for the Tories and the other by Lord Adonis for Labour. Ferguson even described the recent English ‘city deals’ as ‘baby steps’. Cities, he said, needed to retain more of their taxation.

In the last year it is as if George Ferguson, himself a distinguished architect and past president of the RIBA, has been wooing Cardiff. He confessed that as the policy focus in England shifts to the city regions, he has felt rather lonely as the mayor of the one major city in the south of the country (outside London). He wants Cardiff and south Wales as an ally, and has been supportive of Cardiff’s successful bid to join the core cities network – a network that Ferguson would be happy to rename the “Great Cities Network’.

Both men saw a common destiny and a model in the Oresund region that links Copenhagen in Denmark and Malmo in Sweden to create a trans-national region of nearly 4 million people.  Those two metropolitan areas have been linked by a 16-kilometre road/rail bridge and tunnel since 2000. Commuting between the two communities has increased sharply in the last 14 years, partly because house prices have been cheaper in Sweden, and 14 universities at either end of the link have combined into an alliance as Oresund University – reputedly the largest in Europe – with 150,000 students. The area boasts it is ‘northern Europe’s strongest home market’.

A cross-channel Severnside region would be rather smaller in population than Oresund – approximately 2.5 million. Two Severn road crossings already exist, as does a rail tunnel, although it has to be said a rather antiquated one. In the last few years there has been greater partnership working between the two cities: the Great Western Partnership that lobbied successfully for rail electrification and, more recently, the less successful joint bid to stage some of the Euro 2020 football matches. The fact that the Severn Barrage concept – with its impact on Bristol and Avonmouth ports – has foundered has also removed a possible obstacle to collaboration.

A cross-channel university alliance – the Great Western Four – has been launched, linking four research intensive Russell Group universities: Cardiff University, and the universities of Bristol, Bath and Exeter.

Interestingly, in the discussion between the two leaders, there was no sense of inequality between the two cities, and certainly no feeling of Cardiff as the supplicant. Although Bristol city is larger and wealthier than Cardiff, Ferguson is envious of the quality of redevelopment in the centre of Cardiff compared with that of his own city, and of Wales’s ability to mount major events such as the NATO summit. Phil Bale admires Bristol’s record on green issues.

The south East Wales city region would actually have a population almost 50 per cent greater than a Bristol and West of England region. Their combined population of 2.5 million would be comparable with Greater Manchester, and slightly larger than the West Yorkshire conurbation around Leeds.

Rail developments are likely to be a continuing focus and a top priority. George Ferguson thought that high speed connections between Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff should be the next high speed rail project – the next HS3 – and in a way that would create a much shorter journey time between Cardiff and Bristol – around the 35 minutes that it now takes to get from Copenhagen to Malmo. Phil Bale was emphatic that they did not want to be HS6 or HS7.

There seems to me to be a need for a detailed study of rail strategy for the cross-channel area as there is the potential for some conflict between current plans for electrification, longer term aspirations for high speed services and the need for fast local services between the two main cities. There is also the possibility that in time the Severn Tunnel may become to rail what the Brynglas tunnels are to the M4 – a nasty pinch point.

In pursuing the wider city region concept within Wales it is clear that there may be three dimensions to the development, the first two of which certainly need to be aligned:

  • The development of the two city Welsh city regions – south west Wales based on Swansea and South East Wales based on Cardiff. The key issue will be how the Welsh Government chooses to move forward on making these an operational reality. This  will mean moving beyond the functions of the current advisory boards. They will need clear functions, funding and a degree of autonomy – probably starting with transport.

  • The second strand will be development of the cross channel region, in the hope that it will encourage a city deal with the UK Treasury that will be of benefit to both sides. This will also need a level of understanding and co-operation  between the Welsh Government and Cardiff Council. A first step should surely be the appointment of the leader of Cardiff Council to the south East Wales Board. His continuing absence is clearly anomalous.

  • The third strand, that may be more of a mid term aspiration will be collaboration between the south east Wales and south West Wales city regions to foster the idea of extending the cross channel region concept as far west as Swansea.

There will surely be an interesting discussion quite soon between the Business Minister, Edwina Hart, who has promoted the city region idea and Leighton Andrews, newly re-appointed to the Welsh Cabinet to re-shape local government and other public services.  There is a lot at stake.

Geraint Talfan Davies is former Chair of the IWA. He is Chairman of the Welsh National Opera and former Controller of BBC Wales.

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