Capital visions 1: Cardiff needs a centre with something to say

Rhys David argues that we need more clarity about what we want the city’s new business district to achieve

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

The installations we put up in public places tell us a lot about the way we view our cities. The Olympic Rings in front of the City hall in Cardiff, while obviously a one-off, proclaim the city as a sporting venue, a tourist location, somewhere people can flock to for pleasure and entertainment. The same is true of the Winter Wonderland ice rink and Big Wheel that has occupied the same spot each Christmas for several years, or the carousel, the pizza restaurants and ice cream parlours in Cardiff’s own take on Barry Island, at the Pier Head.


Cardiff’s Heritage

Tomorrow Peter Finch says the loss of the historic Cardiff watering hole, the Vulcan, is only partly compensated by its finding a home at the National History Museum.

Yet, is this image the right one for the city and indeed for these significant public locations? The City Hall, the Law Courts and the National Museum, not to mention the University, Welsh National War Memorial and the Temple of Peace, were placed in Cathays Park, a gift of the Marquess of Bute, as statements of the civic importance of Cardiff, places where important decisions on the city’s future, on the lives and disputes of its citizens, and its memories of the past could be gathered together. Do they not deserve to be more than a backdrop to the fun and games in front?

Likewise at the Pier Head. The headquarters of the Bute Docks company was built in quality redbrick French chateau style as a physical representation of the importance of Cardiff’s dock operations. Later they went on to act as the headquarters of the Great Western Railways’ docks throughout Britain. It, too, finds itself upstaged – as does the Senedd – by the carnival atmosphere the city council tries to encourage in this area with its funfair rides, festivals and tourist events, and the nearby retail focus on food and drink. Visitors from far and wide may love it, but it does not tell you what Cardiff is or would like to be: an important administrative and business centre for a growing and prosperous country.

In theory the creation of a central business district with enterprise zone status perhaps gives Cardiff an opportunity to get things right and to try to bring some order into a hotch-potch city centre that has developed without any apparent thought as to what should best be placed where. Cities offer a variety of services to residents and visitors. In general it makes sense for like to be grouped with like for the benefit of users and for the efficient exchange of information and use of resources by business. In Cardiff this has sometimes happened but usually by chance.

Take, for instance, legal services. Even in London where the legal sector must be one hundred times the size of Cardiff’s, most of the big City solicitors are grouped in a comparatively small area bounded by Southampton Row/Kingsway to the West and Moorgate to the East. Similarly, insurance is grouped in the few streets close to Lloyds of London, estate management largely in and around Hanover Square, and hedge fund management in Mayfair. This clustering, in what remains the most successful business city in the world, goes back centuries. The Royal Bank of Canada’s London offices are still to be found in the narrow streets where the Hudson’s Bay Company and other fur traders were based alongside the quays bringing in ships from across the Atlantic in the 18th Century.

In Cardiff the legal firms start in Park Place, where the barristers are also to be found because of proximity to the Law Courts, then wander through St. Andrew’s Crescent and Windsor Place and on through Churchill Way, with big outposts in Callaghan Square and St. Mary Street and a mile or so further away again in Cardiff Bay. Our big companies – Principality, Brains, Peacocks, Black Horse Finance, and British Gas stand in a ring around the city centre like towers in a mediaeval city wall. The biggest of all, Admiral, will be moving shortly to a sort of ‘keep’ position in the centre, creating its own mound next to John Lewis.

Our entertainment quarter stretches west to Chapter and east to the Gate, north to the Sherman and Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and south to the Wales Millennium Centre. Only the New Theatre and St. David’s Centre are anywhere near the middle of town. Pity the poor visitor who comes to stay in Cardiff wanting to go to a few shows but is not ready or equipped to make extensive travel arrangements once there.

Our civic and national administration is completely bifurcated, too. Cardiff council operates from Cathays Park north of the city centre and Atlantic Wharf next to the old Bute East Dock. The Welsh Government also conducts its business from the same northerly outpost and from the water-lapped edges of the Bay, its gaze orientated across to Weston-super –Mare.

We do, of course, have a successful shopping cluster in the St. David’s Centre and the surrounding area and the less welcome concentration of pubs and clubs in St. Mary Street and Greyfriars Road.  However, outside these essentially consumer groupings the city’s only clusters (just) are the property surveyors who favour Windsor Place and its environs, and the hotels – the Parc and Travelodge in Queen Street, the Ibis in Churchill Way, the Big Sleep, the Radisson Blu, the Maldron, Park Inn, the Marriott, and the Royal near the station, and finally, the Angel and Holiday Inn near the castle,  forming a  relatively tight circle within the city centre, with a few outliers south of the main railway  line.

The new Central Business District around the station, assuming the new Labour administration is as enthusiastic as the previous Liberal Democrat leadership, is where some concentration can take place. First, however, we probably need to decide what we mean by a central business district. If this was a reasonably-sized US city we would all know what would be found in such a district. It would be where the region’s banks, regional IT and other businesses would have their headquarters and where the lawyers and consultants could be found, too.

In our leading city it is not so clear. Will the new offices when built be where leading Welsh businesses decide to have their headquarters and if so which ones, or will it tempt leading international corporations to create bases from which to serve Wales and perhaps a wider area? Can we expect professional services – lawyers, accountants, and consulting firms – to relocate to the new site to take advantage of rail and other communications, the extra business the proposed new convention centre should bring, and proximity to the St. David’s Centre?

What chances do the ambitions to attract so-called ‘headquarters companies’ to Cardiff really have? To answer that – and it is no more a reflection on Cardiff than any other UK city – you have to consider why any company would want to re-position itself in the city from somewhere else. Cardiff’s many attractions will inevitably be weighed against the severe difficulty of persuading wives or husbands with careers of their own – and their children – to uproot alongside their partners. All we know so far is that big companies already in Cardiff, notably Legal & General, are proving reluctant to commit to moving from their existing bases in the city, though discussions are still taking place with others. Are we in fact merely talking about trying to add  to the already substantial back office and call centre activities of big companies that Cardiff already has? If so they hardly represent what might be thought of as the proper constituents of a ‘central business district’.

None of this is to say that it is not a reasonable aim to create a Welsh mini-Manhattan in the still rather desolate landscape around Cardiff’s main station and to build on the strengths Cardiff already has as an administrative centre. However, the city’s planners need to have some clear and realistic ideas in mind as to what can and what should be attracted to locate in the area and what might be practicable over the short and medium term.

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