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.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy