City Regions in Wales: Progress, or not?

Dr Elizabeth Haywod says we can’t shy away from the tough decisions to be made on city regions.

“We believe [the Cardiff Capital] city region journey should begin with transport. This is because good connectivity provides the foundation and catalyst for the positive economic, social, and environmental changes that we want to see” (Powering the Welsh Economy Report, February 2015).

“Our vision for the [Swansea Bay City] region is that by 2030 South West Wales will be a confident, ambitious and connected European City Region, recognised internationally for its emerging Knowledge and Innovation economy” (Economic Regeneration Strategy, 2013).


I’m certainly not going to disagree with either of these two statements – I don’t think anyone could who wants to see economic improvement – but I have to admit to real frustration that we’re still talking rather than doing.  My report identifying two city regions in Wales (around Cardiff and Swansea) was published almost three years ago.  Its recommendations are echoed in both city regions’ strategies (connectivity including the Metro, skills and planning happening at a regional rather than local authority level), and Cardiff University has picked up the recommendation on provision of regional economic data so that we can all keep tabs on what is happening.

But despite the First Minister’s public support in 2012 for the city region approach, and the Economy and Transport Minister’s continued desire for progress, traditional cracks remain in the policy framework and the difficult decisions don’t seem to have been attempted.  The one concrete result so far – and it was no small feat – was agreement by all the south east Wales players that the city region name must include the word ‘Cardiff’ – something so obvious to the business community, whose enthusiasm and support is a vital precondition for success, that it provoked a wry smile.

However, I said in 2012 that ‘for the City Region approach to be successful in Wales, everyone involved, from opinion formers at all levels of Government through to the business community, the education sector and the general public, will need to be prepared to ‘have some skin in the game’ and to take decisions based on the wider good of the region’.  Have we seen that yet?  The Williams Commission (on local government) failed to take any account of the likely impact of city regions, though whether this was down to a silo mentality or a turf war within Welsh Government I don’t know.  The Williams report even recommended Bridgend look westwards for collaboration, when the city regions consultation had clearly shown Bridgend preferred to look eastwards (and had more economic links there).  It is to be hoped that planning at a city region (rather than local authority) level will be a key part of the new Welsh Planning Bill.

Where are the proposals to pool funding for the good of a whole city region rather than continue with a parochial approach to divvying up finance according to individual local authority boundaries?  Putting the Metro at the heart of the Cardiff Capital Region’s strategy was a pretty safe bet, given clear support from Welsh Government for the concept, but where is the delivery body, where is the timetable?  And shouldn’t the City Region take responsibility for ensuring economic development (housing, business parks, college expansion – even medical services) is focused around nodes on the Metro network, as Stuttgart does?

‘Powering the Welsh Economy’ contains a series of ‘what it could look like’ columns for each of its four themes (connectivity, skills, innovation and identity) but they are disappointing.  Why ‘could’ and not ‘will’?  Why are there no quantifiable objectives, other than those previously announced by others?  That doesn’t make me, as a Welsh citizen, feel as though I (or my children/grandchildren) am going to get something out of this approach.  I know the city region boards are advisory, but I would have liked to see a few specific recommendations (demands?) challenging the status quo and setting out how they would deliver more jobs and greater prosperity, rather than stating only that the Report ‘is a start of a wider conversation with partners and communities across the Region’.

So, for example, under ‘Skills’, Powering the Welsh Economy thinks Cardiff Capital Region could be the region of choice for students, and see better alignment between its educational outputs and business needs.  What about committing the Region to offer all its undergraduates a work placement opportunity, a suggestion made by the previous Vice Chancellor of Cardiff University?  This would send a message to potential investors that we are serious about skills, give graduates an advantage when seeking employment, and introduce a wider range of existing businesses to the benefits of employing graduates.

If the city region boards are to harness business commitment and enthusiasm, they will need to commit to specific objectives which appeal to business (together with timetables).  More businesspeople will then be prepared to take a lead, which in turn will help Welsh Government keep the city region agenda on track.  And there is no doubt business generally thinks in terms of city regions, not administrative boundaries: this and their willingness to play their part was made clear in the last piece of research the South East Wales Economic Forum (SEWEF) carried out.

We can’t wait forever to take some of the difficult decisions.  That means Welsh Government delegating powers and responsibility to the city regions (perhaps a City Deal for Wales as a quid pro quo for local authorities accepting Williams-style mergers).  And if city regions are the engines of growth, they must have priority in economic policy and funding decisions.

Dr Elizabeth Haywood is Former Chair of the City Regions Task Force.

11 thoughts on “City Regions in Wales: Progress, or not?

  1. City regions and local government reform cannot be seriously considered as separate policies.Would a democratically accountable city region be rival that the Assembly couldn’t tolerate?

  2. Like so many people that I talk with I am totally fed up of the endless hyperbole about the City Region concept. It is a white elephant in waiting, and its narrow, parochial view is startling. Lump people and communities together, the City Region proponents say, and all will be rosy. How ridiculous! The fact, as Dr Haywood notes, that we are still talking about this three years after her report sums up Welsh decision-making. Lets please put this farcical proposal to bed once and for all, and get on with creating sustainable economic opportunities that will benefit future generations. This is what I, and other business people, are doing by looking at opportunities on the Mainland, in places like Bavaria and the Basque Country, and further afield in areas like the Indian sub-continent, and the Malay Peninsula. What I have always found, in five decades of business, is that investors want to deal with ‘real people’ not quixotic concepts.

  3. To be honest have not given much consideration to city regions – just I was aware it was played around with in Swansea!! Yes its a big economic/strategic development decision. I am attracted to the concept but it will require a balanced approach within the two regions – not over-centralisation in two cities – a genuine regional approach.
    However if people think arriving at a conclusion on less than 22 councils is going to be difficult – loss of power, identity, local democracy and so on the City Region concept multiplies all that many fold.
    Welsh leaders/politicians cannot get it that Wales is a small country of 3 million – not much bigger than Manchester Metropolitan area with its 10 Councils, Sad really – we are over governed, too much small-time political interfering and far too much public administration.

    Reply personally on Twitter @Gwynoro or my blog

  4. The biggest step forward and thus the greatest disappointment so far is the Metro. This will have a game-changing impact on the people of South Wales in the same way that The Bay transformed Cardiff.

  5. Taken from the Enterprise and Business Committee transcript, Wednesday 3rd June 2015:

    Mohammad Asghar:
    … My question on the metro now: when will a delivery plan for the metro, setting out
    both interventions and governance structure, be published, please?

    Edwina Hart:
    I will be making an announcement, as I’ve indicated, before the
    summer recess on these matters. We’re finalising various details now. In terms of what we’ve
    done on the metro—and, of course, we’ve got the franchise issues as well arising—we’ve had
    a big discussion with the user groups on what they require from the franchise, which has been
    absolutely excellent in terms of what they want. In terms of the metro, we’re well ahead in
    terms of plans. We will be sharing with the Assembly and I will be making the announcement
    to the Assembly.

    The summer recess begins on Monday 20th July.

  6. In both England and Wales, the words ‘city region’ have taken on a talismanic air. Policy-makers seem to think that simply using them will solve problems as if by magic.

    The truth is that a structural change is meaningless unless there is a specific strategy for the new structure to implement. The Assembly could itself draft a sub-regional transport and strategic planning strategy tomorrow without the need for a new structure, with all the delay and expense its establishment would involve. So why bother with the new structure at all?

    Such a new structure would in any case be subject to the paradox mentioned by Jon Owen Jones: if it was democratic, it would simply add another player to a field which is already supposed to be too crowded, but if, on the other hand, it was not democratic, then so much for decentralisation!

  7. In which case, the City Region needs to be democratically accountable to the Assembly. The question is, How?

  8. @Peter Watson. The ‘BAY’ as we now know it was brought in by a QUANGO that was filled with Conservative Party supporters and by definition not under direct political control of the left wing/nationalist types now in charge. Perhaps that is why it ‘got done’,and with the Senydd is seemingly the most ‘buzzin’ place in the Universe!!.

  9. Jon Owen raises the question of the City Region as being a potential rival to the Assembly. This is an important issue. There is electoral politics and there is realpolitik and this clearly comes under the latter heading.

    However we’re in danger of getting lost in the ins and outs of the internal politics of Wales and losing sight of the purpose of the City Region which is to promote and deliver economic prosperity. For that reason, there needs to be clarity in the relationship between the Assembly, the Government, the City Region Board and local government involvement. As I understand it, there is to be an announcement shortly on the establishment of a delivery body, which I assume is for the region, not just the Metro, although that is the first priority of the Capital Region Board.

    If there is not talk already about the next stage, I would suggest that the development of the financial services sector should be the second priority. Having Admiral at the core of this sector has been a success and there is also the question of the Development Bank for Wales and when that is likely to come on line. There are also longer established banks such as Julian Hodge that continue to operate here. But there should be no geographical barrier to the development of such a sector, though clearly there will be competition issues with London just two hours away by train. International Finance is largely conducted electronically so, in theory, there should be no barriers to Cardiff offering finance not just to Wales but beyond. It is interesting to note that a recent suggestion that Cardiff could have its own Stock Exchange, just like it used to have its own Coal Exchange, run by the Dublin Stock Exchange has largely fallen on deaf ears, when what is really required is an examination of its feasibility.

    So when the Delivery Body is announced which hopefully will be soon, let the debate move on to how we establish sources of finance for the region that are based in the region and can serve as a basis for international trade, just like it did back in 1886.

  10. The potential rivalry between (particularly) the South East Wales City-Region and Welsh Government (NOT the Assembly) is paramount and will kill any chance of a worthwhile region. I have argued elsewhere that this circle can only be squared (and over governance addressed) with the transfer of economic development policymaking and associated staff and budgets from Welsh Government to City Regions and (one presumes) new rural Counties. Probably wise to lump post-16 education and skills in there too actually If it’s to be given a good chance of working in terms of improving and matching both the supply and demand side. WG then remains, effectively as a regulatory and audit body. Of course this requires significant re-investment in local democratic structures and engagement to ensure political buy in and balance across the region – which might indeed be easier if sub-Wales bodies had greater autonomy and meaning.


Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy