This essay originally appeared in Metro & Me, a collection of essays exploring the potential of the South Wales Metro as a catalyst for change.
In 2016 I was asked by the Federation of Small Businesses Wales to consider the potential local economic impacts of the Cardiff Capital Region Metro. The report welcomed the proposals to improve public transport infrastructure and services in South East Wales.
Since the decimation of the area’s railway infrastructure as a result of the misguided short-termism of the Beeching cuts, the region has suffered more than many from poor public transport. Research in 2014 found, for example, that it was actually quicker and more direct to travel by public transport from Tredegar to Newport in 1958 than it is today. On the other hand, the report was sceptical about the hype that has built up around the Metro, and particularly about the significant claims that have been made about its ‘transformative’ power to improve the region’s economy. To add perspective, it considered the Metro proposals within the context of the broader economic landscape. As well as understanding the socio-economic context in South East Wales, it also identified the mixed evidence concerning the impact of large-scale transport investments internationally.
Many of the arguments and justification put forward in support of the public investment for the Metro appear to derive from a belief that it will make the Cardiff city region more ‘competitive’ and, therefore, more prosperous. Debate and discussion about the Metro has, so far, failed to reflect on the ‘collaborate to compete’ perspective on local economic development, nor has it really considered foundational economics. This is an important omission, as the foundation economy is critical to the long-term social and economic sustainability of South East Wales. This point has been recently accepted by Welsh Government with the publication of its latest economic strategy.
If this omission is not addressed, there is a danger that important opportunities to support local and distributed economies across South East Wales, as a means to achieve more ‘inclusive’ and sustainable growth, will be missed. Much will depend on what measurements of success are used in taking the Metro forward. I have argued elsewhere, that measurements of success should be more closely associated with a ‘well-being economy’ more clearly linked to the requirements of the Well-being of Future Generations Act than with an overriding concern with regional growth and GVA.
More recently there has been an emphasis on the ability of so-called ‘metro hubs’ to support local economic development. As the FSB Report highlighted however, there is little international evidence concerning the non-transport benefits associated with transport infrastructure investments. There is a shortage of robust methodological approaches that can connect transport investment with social and economic outcomes. What evidence does exist about the impact of metro style hubs suggests that context is critical, as internationally such transport hubs have had negative and indifferent, as well as positive effects.
The spatial context appears to be critical in determining who benefits from investment, yet there has been little spatial analysis forthcoming, and what analysis has been undertaken has some major shortcomings. The question of who will benefit from the Metro investment – centre or periphery – largely remains unanswered. There is then, a major need to improve whole-place planning in Wales if the benefits of the Metro are to accrue equitably across the region. If delivered inaccurately, the network could cut across existing local economies and weaken them even further.
The Metro has the potential to offer a scheme that garners widespread political support, and helps to build the architecture for the city region experiment and City Deal programme. This approach fits with an emphasis on internationally competitive cities, an agenda that has come to dominate economic priorities in Wales. Placing an overriding emphasis on securing foreign direct investment, however, risks overlooking opportunities to support Wales’ existing and small businesses.
In the context of the Metro, it is important to understand that the overriding economic rationale for the investment has, thus far, been based on a particular view of the regional economy. There is a need for much greater debate on how the Metro can contribute to an alternative, more sustainable vision for the future of South East Wales, much more closely attuned to the requirements of the Well-being of Future Generations Act. As a major public transport initiative, it certainly has the potential to add much to this objective.
The extremely poor transport network in South East Wales cannot be ignored, and the Metro has the potential to offer much in this respect. The reality is however, that transport or any other form of infrastructural investment, will not in itself address the underlying economic problems of South East Wales or the social consequences. The balance of international evidence suggests that transport investment is not, as some would argue, a social and economic ‘silver bullet’. On the other hand, public transport can form part of the broad mix of issues that contribute to sustainable place-making. The Metro could become a grid like network, helping to integrate communities and local economies across South East Wales. It could help secure sustainable and equitable outcomes. Equally, it could also become part of the series of factors that have contributed to the decline of local economies in communities across the region. Much depends on its rationale, how we chose to measure its success, and the evidence available to support its successful implementation.
- There needs to be a serious consideration of how success is measured. Thus far regional priorities have been overwhelmingly based on growth and GVA, but there are major shortcomings in these as measurements of success.
- There needs to be detailed whole-place planning in towns and communities across South East Wales. This will help progressively guide the implication of the Metro as part of a wider mix of interventions.
- There needs to be greater integration between the Metro and economic policy, as well as with the Well-being of Future Generations Act. Thus far, well-being assessments have not fully integrated with economic policy, and vice versa.
- There needs to be less unrealistic hype about the Metro, and more realism about what it may actually deliver.
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