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.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy