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.

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