Riot Reflections 2: Big may not be so beautiful after all

Rhys David suggests there are lessons for Cardiff’s development to be learned from the English riots

Rhys David is a trustee of the IWA and writes on business and economic affairs.

The Greeks had a word for it, hubris. It seems a long time ago but it is only last month that Boris Johnson, mayor of London, was talking of the people of London being ready to welcome the world’s finest athletes to the greatest games that had ever been held, in the greatest city on Earth. Now the very boroughs that lie alongside some of the shining new Olympic facilities present a gap-toothed façade of burnt out buildings and boarded shops.

Manchester had also begun to believe much of its own publicity as a hip and happening place, buoyed by massive retail investment in the city centre and its success in attracting large chunks of the BBC to its futuristic quayside swathe of offices and high tech businesses in neighbouring Salford. Again, as I found on a recent walk around the city, you need to go only a hundred yards or so from the city’s Arndale Centre, a much more flamboyant expression of consumerism than Cardiff’s altogether more sober St. David’s Centre, to find semi-derelict warehouses.

In all this there has been some pride and perhaps even schadenfreude in Wales that we do not seem to have suffered in the same way, give or take a few cases of attempted internet incitement. In a reversal of Merthyr in 1831 and Tonypandy in 1910-11 we have actually seen Welsh forces of law and order being sent to control rioting in England. A Welsh ‘peace force’ (hêdd llu) on the streets of London and Manchester!

Peter Hain has said that Wales should not crow about the absence of rioting and, for all the criticism this immediately attracted, he is quite right. Others have pointed out that what has happened in England’s big cities might yet come to Wales at a later stage as cuts start to bite. At a recent Bevan Foundation conference on worklessness Professor Steve Fothergill, Britain’s leading expert on the former coalfields areas, suggested there was a jobs shortfall of 50,000 facing the Valleys which he did not believe growth in Cardiff – one of the solutions often advanced – could secure. That could mean problems are being stored up.

Yet it is not necessary to be complacent to think that perhaps the reaction of people in Wales to tighter controls on benefits, further job losses in the private sector and cuts in public expenditure and employment will not be riots. Firstly it is not even clear that hardship was even the main factor in the trouble in England’s cities and it will now take further research to establish just what the causes were.

Academic evidence over recent years has pointed to the key importance of demographics in the genesis of rioting. Where there is a large bulge of young people passing through the population – as was the case in 1970s USA, and as is now the case in the whole of the Middle East, frustration at lack of opportunities and at the dominance of older elites monopolising the opportunities on offer expresses itself on the streets.

Of course, it will be argued that Britain does not have this problem. Instead, what we actually face is an ageing population. While this is true, there has also been a significant growth in population in some of Britain’s big cities over the last two decades, with people streaming in from all over the world to take up jobs in the fast-growing service sector. Britain’s population has been growing at the fastest rate since the end of the war in recent years and is set on some predictions to rise to 70 million by 2029, compared with only 50 million in 1948 and 63 million at present.

Cardiff has shared in some of this big city growth, so why has it not been affected? It is worth noting that all of the cities affected by rioting are significantly bigger than the Welsh capital. By and large Cardiff has managed to avoid the conflicts unfortunately inherent in melting pot societies and the nihilism, which can follow if community cohesion is not carefully nurtured and sustained.

Yet Cardiff, it should be added, does aspire to be just such a big city able to compete with Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Bristol as a major hub for a wide region. Academic evidence shows that larger cities grow faster, have better quality jobs, and higher income than their smaller counterparts. As a result this prospect is very attractive to civic leaders. Such thinking is behind the continued interest in the notion of a city region for south-east Wales integrating Cardiff and the Valleys much more closely to create a super-city of 1 million people.

One of the lessons for Wales from the riots might just be that there are trade-offs between size and social harmony. Maybe the Welsh context needs to be factored into considerations of the future relationship between Cardiff and neighbouring areas. Perhaps we should stop taking about a city region and think instead about a networked region, preserving the best aspects of both Cardiff and its hinterland – to the east and west as well as the north.

Better communication links, as exemplified by the case for a comprehensive modern rail system linking Cardiff with other areas, is just one part of this but an important place to start. Growth and development of the region has to be seen as more than simply extending Cardiff’s footprint. Other elements within the city’s relationship with its neighbours should also now be re-evaluated in this new context so that the region as a whole can be strengthened.

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