The Right Track? Considering the impact of the Metro

Dr Mark Lang says more work needs to be done to establish the benefit of the South Wales Metro project.

The Cardiff Capital Region Metro proposals have attracted significant interest since the publication of the original Metro report in 2011, and with good reason.  The proposals have put strategic public transport improvements well and truly on the agenda of Welsh Government and local governments across South East Wales.  Like many others, not only do I recognise the importance of making better use of public transport for quite clear environmental reasons, but also as a potential mechanism to support the economic and social sustainability of communities across South East Wales.

This is why I was pleased when FSB Wales asked me to look at the potential local and socio-economic impacts of the Metro.  They, like I, want the proposed South East Wales Metro to be a success.  It can’t just be a transport project designed to improve journey times to Cardiff – it must aid the economic, social, environmental and cultural sustainability of the wider region.  In short, it needs to be an investment in the well-being of current and future generations across South East Wales.

In a report published this week by FSB Wales, I seek to cast a critical friend’s eye over the Metro proposals.  The timing is important, with the recent signing of a ‘City Deal’ between the UK Government, Welsh Government and the ten local authorities of South East Wales as it now looks as though the Metro will be delivered.

In the paper I offer a tentative analysis of the Metro proposals, and seek to raise a series of discussion points, which relate to: the economic rationale underpinning the Metro proposals; the lack of real international evidence that conclusively proves that transport investment necessarily leads to positive social and economic outcomes; and critically, the lack of a detailed spatial understanding of South East Wales against which to plan a comprehensive public transport network.

The established economic rationale for the Metro fits within the ‘collaborate to compete’ thesis of economic development, and it has so far failed to at least consider alternatives such as Foundational Economics, which places far more emphasis on local goods and services.  What it tangibly results in is therefore likely to be aimed at supporting this economic approach.  Personally, I prefer a more distributed form of economic activity.  The debates and discussions about the Metro, and indeed about the future economy of South East Wales, has thus far largely been limited to a small elite that tends to share the same vision for Wales’ economy.

There remains a lack of robust methodological approaches to conclusively prove the link between transport investment and social and economic outcomes.  Spatial analysis would help, but little has been undertaken.  In this respect, there remain serious limitations to the evidence to show who, if anyone, will benefit from the investment.  Metro hubs may aid the distribution of economic benefits across the network, but the international evidence about such developments is mixed.   The wider context appears to be critical, both in terms of supportive policy and programmes, and the underlying existing economic and social conditions.

There is a lack of really detailed understanding of the economic and social spatial interconnectedness of South East Wales.  Whilst the Metro appears to offer a major scheme to improve public transport connectivity in South East Wales, we simply do not know what we are seeking to integrate or how effective it will be.  There is a real danger that the investment might cut across existing local economies, or simply have no, or limited, impact.  Indeed, without such evidence, it is difficult to determine whether even Cardiff as a whole or its various districts will benefit.

As a pure transport scheme, the Metro has real merit.  To maximise the local and socio-economic impacts of the scheme, however, we need a fuller appreciation of its potential impacts.  The truth is that the Metro, like any other form of infrastructural investment, is not a ‘silver bullet’ that will somehow fix the economy of South East Wales, nor address the economic and social inequalities that exist.  There is a danger that we may have too much expectation of what it will achieve, and we may take our eyes off other policies, programmes and actions that might work with the Metro to achieve fuller outcomes.

In my paper for the FSB I call for more meaningful research to understand the interconnectedness of communities across South East Wales (and for Wales as a whole); a comprehensive evaluation of how best to support the existing economies across the South East Wales, that considers all options.

I also advocate a reappraisal of the Metro spatial map in light of this analysis; to ensure it supports access to public services.  We need to have clearer basis for evaluating success.

In line with the National Conversation prior to the Well-Being of Future Generations Act, a broadening of the debate beyond the small elite that currently determines economic decisions in Wales is needed.

Dr Mark Lang is a consultant living and working in South East Wales, and is concerned with the social, economic, environmental and cultural sustainability of communities.

3 thoughts on “The Right Track? Considering the impact of the Metro

  1. Dr. Lang makes some very apposite points in his article.

    I am currently writing a PhD proposal on the feasibility of an all-Wales integrated transport system and, like him, have been unable to find any solid evidence of a link between transport investment and favourable economic and social outcomes.

    Whilst purely from a transport policy and planning perspective interventions may be successful by promoting mobility and access like Dr. Lang I suspect that large scale projects may, but not necessarily will, have unexpected economic consequences. I recall that when the A55 North Wales Expressway was completed instead of benefits accruing to the local economy several north coast enterprises moved over the border to the Chester area. In France the opening of the south east high speed railway (LGV Sud Est) initially saw a migration of businesses away from the Lyon area to Paris.

    Consequently, with Metro there may be a danger of existing vital economic activity being ‘drained’ from the Valleys down to Cardiff and the coastal zone. My feeling is that the key to prevent this from happening is the development of Metro in such a way to encourage Valleys centres such as Merthyr, Pontypridd and Caerphilly to ‘grow’ their local economies. I suggest that excellent access to these centres is essential and that this can best be achieved by the choice of mode for Metro being light rail so that incremental network improvements can be made in a way that promotes the polycentric economic development of the region.

  2. The official growth projections for Cardiff are extraordinary. I find them hard to believe. Still, if anything like them happens there will be a huge demand for additional housing in the Cardiff area. The development of a metro would allow housing development to be more dispersed, giving the nearer valley towns like Caerphilly and Pontypridd a population boost that they need. The incomers’ jobs could well be in Cardiff but they’ll buy goods and services where they live, boosting the area.

  3. I thought the article and the report did raise some important and wider questions in relation to the kind of region and economy we want to see in south east Wales.

    I would challenge some assertions though. There is plenty of data supporting investment in transport and the wider benefits that can accrue. I will let others do further digging, but as a starter worth looking at

    http://www.transportworks.org/evidence-base

    In most cases though, improved transport connectivity is not always in itself enough to have a positive impact on local economies; other interventions are also required related to skills and regeneration. However, better connectivity is more often than not a fundamental requirement. I can’t imagine anyone arguing for less transport connectivity for places like Nelson, Pontypridd, St Mellons or Aberdare.

    Just to be clear and to challenge a few untruths emerging, the 2103 Metro Impact Study was never all about Cardiff – it was deliberately focused on the region and presented many examples of the kinds of local development/regeneration that could play out in a better connected region. Metro was and is about the regional economy.

    The spatial point is well made by Dr Lang – we tried to begin that process in 2013. One can argue at the margins, but I feel the thrust of the 2013 analysis still stands. Remember that the 2013 work was done in 3 months with a range of external consultants and it had no official status – so no doubt it can be improved. The elephant in the room is that the region needs a statutory and comprehensive regional spatial plan the addresses and integrates land use and transport planning. (This is what Stuttgart has managed since the early 1990s). No organisation exists today with that statutory remit! We have to create it – else we’ll be plagued by major car based housing developments in the wrong place and 1970s road schemes re-emerging on the hope of city deal funding. Such old, parochial and locally focussed thinking has to be challenged.

    One consequence is that, too often, major public projects are progressed without any real consideration of accessibility via public transport. I would argue that perhaps Llanfrecfa is the wrong site for a major healthcare facility; the Royal Gwent might have been better. Similarly the new Coleg Y Cymoedd campus at Nantgarw would have had a greater regeneration impact and certainly would have been more accessible, had it been developed in the centre of Pontypridd. Neither happened and the rather poor regional public transport links of both have to be considered in the longer term metro programme

    In case anyone is in any doubt, the standard business case being developed for Metro (using Treasury 5 case guidelines) gives a +ve BCR. One couldn’t progress without it. Also, the core project has to focus on the existing rail network north of Queen St. So that network serving Rhymney, Merthyr, Pontypridd, Aberdare and Treherbert. If we get this right with a “light rail” like solution offering faster and more frequent services, then extensions and additional stations can be considered more widely across the region. Let’s get that core right first…

    Finally, as has been raised by Dr Lang and addressed in my earlier reports, is the need for a more nuanced debate about how we secure wider benefits. Any narrative focussed on the valleys that ignores Cardiff or on Cardiff alone and ignoring the rest of the region is not helpful. Similarly any narrative that ignores broader commercial realities or emerging global trends would also sell us short.

    In doing so we also need to make some tough calls. I’ll re-use my 2011 statement and stress the importance of avoiding “easy” interventions that deliver nothing but homogenous mediocrity. We can do better. My litmus test is to see Metro deliver more higher value jobs in Cardiff AND more jobs and commercial activity in Pontypridd, Newport, Merthyr, etc as well as better connectivity across the region from places like Nelson, St Mellons and Crwys Rd!

    The Metro project demands that we have the wider debate; let’s see how we get on…

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