Welsh regions have to look to their own assets

Geraint Talfan Davies takes issues with Simon Brooks’ notion that Wales is becoming a city state

Simon Brooks’ lament that Wales is morphing from a nation into a city state centred wholly on Cardiff is a classic of the genre. It differs only in his professed liking for the Welsh capital when he lived there. He says that he doesn’t do Cardiff bashing, but then goes on to peddle the hairy old canard that the problems of Gwynedd are down to our obsession with Wales’s biggest city.

This is all the more disappointing because Mr Brooks is an academic of distinction whose recent book on why Wales didn’t follow the course of other national movements in Europe in the 19th century is one of the most thought-provoking theses on Welsh history that we have seen for some time.

But his article is full of some very unacademic assertions that, unfortunately, build on tired myths about the relationship between Cardiff and Wales. One can share his worries about parts of rural Wales, and particularly the parlous situation of the Welsh language, but ascribing those problems to an alleged centralisation of Wales on Cardiff is wide of the mark.

Two breath-taking assumptions turn up in the same paragraph. I quote: “And rural Gwynedd doesn’t have many young people. They all move to Cardiff. As a friend told me on the Llyn Peninsula: “We love our children. We bring them up. And then they are taken away.”

We can dispense quite quickly with the notion that Cardiff buses steal into Gwynedd at the dead of night to whisk local children away. But that still leaves us with the lazy assumption that “they all move to Cardiff”. I have to acknowledge that one of our problems in Wales is that it is not easy to check where our young people end up.  This is in sharp contrast to the situation in Ireland where, being a state, the country has been able to measure very accurately its loss of young people to the UK, the USA and the rest of the world.

But it is a fair assumption that all parts of Wales – even Cardiff – are losing many of their young people, often the best educated, to other parts of the UK – London, Manchester, Bristol – that can offer more, and more varied job opportunities. More specifically, the problem of rural depopulation is not a Welsh phenomenon, but a world-wide one. And the truth is that Wales would lose a lot more of its young people if it did not have at least one large and vibrant urban centre to hold them here.

There is an echo here – but only an echo – of the development of Wales in the 19th century, when the discovery of coal resulted in a migration into south Wales, rather than a loss of population to America. Some have argued that this internal migration saved the Welsh language. That said, Mr Brooks and I would both be sceptical of the idea that the growth of Welsh speakers in Cardiff will necessarily have the same beneficial effect in this century.

It is interesting to look at migration statistics, which suggest more churn in the Welsh population than you might expect. For instance, between 2001 and 2008 653,613 people moved into Wales, with 579,813 leaving – a net inward migration of 73,800. In the last two decades net inward migration has made a much bigger contribution to Welsh population growth than natural growth – the surplus of births over deaths.

Mr Brooks’ third breath-taking assertion is that  “Wales must now be the most centralised country in Europe.” Here, I think that Cardiff has perhaps been the victim of its own hype. It has been talking itself up very effectively since the late 1980s and the formation of the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation. Its population has also being growing at a steady pace, but its population as a percentage of the Welsh population has not altered dramatically.

In 1971 Cardiff’s population represented 10.7% of the Welsh population. By 2011 this had risen to only 11.2%, despite the widening of the city’s boundaries in 1974 (to include Lisvane, St. Fagans and Tongwynlais) and in 1996 (to include, Creigiau, Pentyrch and Gwaelod-y-Garth). The 2011 census said the city’s population was 346,000

The population of the city of Dublin is 1,273,069 – more than three and a half times that of Cardiff  – and it represents 28% of the population of the Republic of Ireland. Cardiff’s share of the Welsh population is 1% above Copenhagen’s share of the Danish population, and 1% below Oslo’s share of the population of Norway. London’s share of England’s population is 16%.

Lest you get the wrong impression, I wouldn’t quarrel with Simon Brooks’ plea for the Welsh Government to do what it can in terms of the dispersal of public sector employment, and to ensure that north Wales gets its fair share of other public investment, but the best antidote to centralisation is self-generated growth within the various regions of Wales. It is a common Welsh mistake to think that solutions lie only in the  hands of government.

An example of what can be done was evident to me at an IWA meeting in Swansea 10 days ago, convened to look at the future of the city. Second cities never have an easy time of it, but they have two choices. They can either live in the shadow of a bigger neighbour and be consumed by defeatism and a dispiriting envy, or they can strike out on their own, define the terms of their own existence and get on with life.

A decade ago I thought Swansea would take the first, negative route. Back then I had chaired a meeting for the IWA, intended to debate the future of the city. It was a depressing occasion with speaker after speaker grumbling about what Cardiff had and what Swansea didn’t have. What a contrast to the more recent meeting, when more than 300 packed into one of the large lecture theatres on Swansea University’s new £250m science and innovation campus for a session that seemed relentlessly positive.

A decade ago the audience was obsessed with negative comparisons with the Welsh capital, almost defining itself as ‘not Cardiff’. Ten years on the meeting catalogued, instead, a heady list of Swansea’s own projects – some of which are already a reality, some in realistic prospect, and others a mark of ambition to be fulfilled.

The university’s £250m science and innovation campus is now built, with Rolls Royce, Hewlett-Packard, Tata, Bell Labs and BAE involved in the project, and the promise of a second phase to come by 2020. Iwan Davies, the university’s Senior Pro Vice Chancellor, who has steered the project is a firm believer that building global competitive advantage for Wales and for the Swansea Bay region is not about building new public offices but rather new laboratories, classroom and innovation centres where big ideas can be hatched and then translated into reality. The university’s ambitions are underpinned by engagement with ten of the biggest research and development companies in the UK.

Not to be outdone, Swansea’s second university, University of Wales Trinity St David, has just gained planning permission for another new campus on the SA1 site near the old Swansea Docks. This too will concentrate on innovation and work closely with local employers.

Then there was the prospect of the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, a massive £1bn project now awaiting to hear whether the UK Government will agree to the strike price for the electricity it could generate via 16 turbines for the next 120 years. If it gets the go-ahead – and that is by no means certain – it will not only be the basis for a new industry for Wales but it will also open up the prospect of a much larger lagoon on the north Wales coast that will also double as a flood protection barrier.

Swansea’s example is relevant to north Wales, although the north does not have urban concentrations of similar size to those in south west and south east Wales and has, therefore, not been able to badge itself as a city region. But that does not mean its public authorities cannot collaborate to produce the kind of internal energy generated in the south. It means concentrating not only on gifts from the Welsh Government but also on identifying the assets of the locality – that are many – and building on them. That is what will hold young people in Gwynedd.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the Welsh National Opera.

7 thoughts on “Welsh regions have to look to their own assets

  1. @ Geraint TD

    Your exhortation that we should not complain about what we don’t have but rather focus on what we want to have and then go about getting it is an important attitude to have in facing up to our comparatively new democratic future.

    But it is all too easy to dismiss the problem that Simon refers to by saying that governments can’t do everything. You quote the example of Swansea and it is the case that it has discovered a new found confidence, largely it has to be said through the auspices of a nominally public institution, Swansea University and the government initiative in creating the Swansea Bay City Region.

    But the point that Simon makes and I make in my comment about his piece is that little thought has been given to how these economic initiatives are going to benefit the rural areas of Wales. Let me quote one example, Brecon. Brecon is only some 20 miles from the CCR and yet it looks to Hereford as its main town. Why? Because there is no economic benefit from crossing the Brecon Beacons. If Wales is to be a genuinely inclusively nation, that has to be true economically and geographically. The Welsh Government has already distributed many of its functions to offices throughout the country, though Brecon is not one of them. But there is not even a proportionate amount of energy given to developing the rural economy as is being shown to the CCR. It is not even an afterthought.

    Cardiff is my home and I identify strongly with the area in which I live. It’s good to see the capital finally on its way to catching up with the 21st century. But it simply misleading to suggest to rural areas that all they have to do is look to Cardiff and Swansea and follow their example. It is not the private sector that is supporting the South Wales Metro. Governments cannot do everything, it’s true. But they can provide infrastructure that facilitates local economic initiatives. Not so much why has someone else got it but rather why not us?

    Government is limited in its ability to focus on issues. A great deal of attention is going on the CCR and with good reason. Perhaps the IWA can provide the forum which looks at less immediate but just as necessary rural economic development so that we all benefit from the devolution dividend.

  2. The trouble with Dr Brooks is that he isn’t an empiricist. He doesn’t really ever make the distinction between what is fact and what he would like to tell the public and, believe me, I know this from having followed his career over 15 years from his early “English Colonists Out” days.

    The statistician, Hywel Jones, made a longitudinal study of migration and the ability to speak Welsh after the 2001 census. He is doing the same thing following the 2011 census. Geraint Talfarn Davies will therefore be able to see if the Fro cymraeg loses young Welsh speakers to England. The earlier study:-

    Actually suggests that young Welsh speakers are less likely to leave Wales than non Welsh speakers and that the “churn” of population is disproportionately amongst people who were actually born in England and elsewhere. This is particularly true of young people within the Fro Cymraeg. Where Hywel Jones goes wrong is to imagine that the “bulge” in the graph showing the high percentage of Welsh speakers amongst the under 15 years old would, without any migration, exactly repeat in the 15-25 years old group ten years later. School pupils who were recorded by their parents as “able to speak Welsh”, when they answered the census question, ten years later had often decided that they could not. Such is the misplaced faith of parents in the ability of schools to teach Welsh.

    Do young Welsh speakers migrate within Wales and is Cardiff (and Swansea) their destination? Rationally I would say yes. Ability to speak, read and write Welsh fluently has become prized in the growing administration of the South and opportunities in the media and in the growing number of Welsh medium schools makes Cardiff and the South a logical destination for the young of Anglesey and Gwynedd.

    If anyone would like to play with an interactive map of where people move to from Gwynedd:-


  3. All very well Rhobat but you just do not understand the treacle like inertia and leaden opposition to all things coming from “outside” that blights the economic future of places like Gwynedd. Read this from the head of Watkin Jones for instance:-


    “Mark Watkin Jones says the ‘importance of investment’ is not understood or embraced in North Wales as it is in other areas…….Last year managing director Mark Watkin Jones revealed that the Bangor-based group was not pursuing new development opportunities in Gwynedd due to numerous issues with planning in the county.”

    Here in the North West of Wales we want to keep our age old freedoms to moan about lack of investment and vigorously oppose any new investment in the area. In this way we can reinforce our status as victims of just about any and every injustice you can think of…Oh, and show me an investment in Gwynedd and I’ll show you how its going to threaten the “Language”. One thing that we are all united on; we don’t want any incomers up here who might not vote Plaid.

  4. I was “spirited away” from Gwynedd at an early age. The reason, lack of opportunity for my father, a railwayman, back in the 1950’s. Dr Beeching removed any thoughts that my partents harboured of returning to Wales. But as I discovered later in life, migration to Manchester or Liverpool was already an established pattern in my family when I investigated the fate of my great grandparents’ children through successive censuses between 1861 and 1911.

    It was the same for other families: some stayed in Wales while others left, never to return except on family visits. A “Liverpool effect,” which left it’s mark long after my parents moved to the West Midlands through the Liverpool Daily Post (Welsh Edition). And a generation later through second hand books, such as “Cwm Eithin” by Hugh Evans, of Gwasg y Brython, when I investigated the social circumstances of my mother’s family background.

    There may be a tendency to dwell on ‘diaspora’ as a reason not to do anythin, rather than to “produce the kind of internal energy” that Gertaint Talfan Davies mentions in his article. As a writer of history about communities in North Wales in the 19th century, I find a reluctance in the cultural heritage sector to discuss different perspectives and approaches in the context of community regeneration and learning that involves the younger generation, or to collaborate with other groups to “join the dots” that would make a difference in the investigation and interpretation of community history. Books by late historian John Davies remain on bookshelves or coffee tables when they could be used as an inspiration to local groups to investigate and interpret the histories of their communities rather than accepting as biblical the story lines developed for railway guides in the 19th century.

    There also appears to be a reluctance on the part of many groups to use the web as a forum for the investigation, learning and interpretation of community history. It would be useful to know, for example, how many education authorities in Wales encourage students to track recent developments at the “Digital Past Conferences” convened by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. Or the fate of the web site for the project “Adnabod Ardudwy” that was archived earlier this year. Better still, to read a full-scale evaluation of what really happened to an innovative approach to the investigation and interpretation of local history.

    A few weeks ago I completed an account of Eisteddfod Corwen and the Pavilion, 1872-1919. The core committee was interdenominational and multi occupational. Huw Davies (Rhuddfryn), a monumental mason and englynwr, comes to mind immediately not only because of his englynion, but also his long service on the committee, then his son’s work as Secretary of Eisteddfod Corwen and the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol at Corwen in 1919. That’s sustained internal energy.

  5. Two very interesting articles. Yes, there is a problem, but the nature of the problem and ways of addressing it are very open to interpretation.

    A personal perspective here. I developed my own business (advising companies, finance houses, governments and multilateral institutions about water policy) through my background in investment banking (in 1986-95, we called it equity analysis, a more modest name for a more modest City) and water and waste management consulting since 1996. I became a returnee Cardi in 1999 (‘milk and men are our best exports’ which was the case for my father) and set up my own company in 2003. It is doing fine, I believe it produces some of the best research there is on water policy and analysis but it is a difficult market to operate in. Some 60-70% of revenues come from outside the EU.

    My experiences? The Internet is simply essential. When the WAG boosted rural Internet speeds in our area to 1.1-1.4 MB/s, that made such a difference. I had a satellite before and thought about a grant. The time needed to fill in the forms meant it simply was not worth it.

    Apart from the Internet, I have to say I find experiences with the WAG grim. There is no possibility of getting work in Wales itself as I am not a Labour member. Indeed as a member of P— C—- it is utterly out of the question. People are quite open about this. I have to go to London or abroad every three weeks or so to see clients and ‘network’, and yes, the roads and railways are grim. Even getting to Cardiff Airport has its byways. Funding? Forget it, every (indirect) experience with government-linked funding is about time lost and over-intervention. Government projects that are not connected to what is going on are not a good thing – look at the Aberporth experience.

    So, bring back the WDA (and its equivalent for tourism), concentrate on transport infrastructure (why is it 50 minutes quicker to drive to Port Talbot rather than get on a train at Carmarthen?) and create a culture that allows small entrepreneurs to thrive. Outside the Cardiff ‘Diff Experience Zone’ it is the SMEs that matter. Think of the impact that 1,000 good quality jobs would make to Ceredigion. Plenty of young people want to stay here if they can. I expect that the same applies in Powys and the North West as well.

  6. A robust response to Simon Brooks article, but not to recognise Cardiff’s lack of humility as a capital is not helpful. The media village in Cardiff is every bit as much capital orientated as the London media with the UK. The combination of the M4 relief road and the city city region deal will concentrate huge proportions of public funding in the SE; the only region in Wales other than part of the NE that any semblance of economic recovery. Cardiff needs to recognise how lucky it is to be benefitting from the coal hinterland, whose toil creted it in the first place & the devolution bonus – something it did not vote for.

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