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Capital Ambition or Capital Fantasy

February 10th 2020

Victoria Winckler reflects on the latest strategy for Cardiff, ‘Capital Ambition’, launched last week.

Last week Cardiff Council launched its ‘Capital Ambition’ document, setting out its vision for the next five years.  I was unable to attend the launch event itself, but you can read the document here – it avoids being swept up in the hype if nothing else.

Cardiff’s success

Cardiff has experienced extraordinary growth. Its increase in employment has out-performed all other parts of Wales. The location of major private sector employers, from Deloitte to John Lewis, as well as the Welsh Government, BBC Wales and two universities, have all contributed to its success.

But while Cardiff may shout about its performance from the roof tops, and rightly so, its success is also creating problems – for Cardiff and for the rest of Wales.

Cardiff’s problems

Cardiff’s success is creating real problems in Cardiff itself.  It’s creating a housing crisis, as the city’s boom drives rocketing house prices and an acute shortage of affordable housing.

It’s creating congestion, with the daily jams on routes into the city a the direct result of the city’s growth and the rest of Wales’ stagnation as nearly 100,000 people commute into Cardiff every day.

It’s creating poverty, by stimulating low-paid, part-time jobs in retail, leisure and other service jobs while the huge number of new professional and managerial jobs usually require a degree to enter.

And Cardiff ‘s growth is damaging the environment, with carbon emissions from travel by car and as green space and biodiversity are destroyed in the race for new housing.

This dash for growth is utterly unsustainable, and if its ambitions are realised the problems will only get worse.

A fair city?

The latest Cardiff plan includes some very welcome measures to tackle the problems. The commitment to building more social housing is a huge step, as is the promotion of Cardiff as a Living Wage City and action to increase educational attainment.  The congestion charge is a controversial recognition that commuting by car, at least for non-Cardiffians, has  got to be curtailed. City streets for city residents perhaps.

But then …

But those positive commitments are undone by relentless development at all costs.  Quite how the mega developments lined up will solve poverty, ease congestion or reduce carbon emissions is far from clear.  As the pace of growth accelerates, they could make Cardiff’s inequality problem even worse. At worst, Cardiff’s ambitions could be described as ‘same old model of growth with a few sticking plasters’.

Working for Wales?

Cardiff’ doesn’t just have ambition for the city itself – it has ambitions for the rest of Wales. Indeed, Cardiff carefully pitches itself as Wales’ economic saviour – ‘a successful Wales needs a successful capital city’ it claims, because Cardiff is ‘Wales’ strongest economic asset and best opportunity for economic success’.

Seriously? Cardiff’s Eastern Gateway will bring a boom to Ceredigion? Its cultural strategy will benefit Anglesey? The regeneration of Cardiff Bay will benefit Haverfordwest?

Frankly, it is impossible for somewhere with a mere 11 percent of Wales’ population, located nearly 200 miles from the north Wales coast, to drive national change. It’s as credible as the claim that Canary Wharf ‘ultimately’ benefits Swansea.

Even within the ‘city region’ I would question these claims.  Just how do these developments benefit the Heads of the Valleys? Yes, more people can jump on a train to get a job in Cardiff or spend their money in Cardiff shops and restaurants. But this isn’t feasible for the majority of people nor is it desirable.

At this point, I know I will be accused of being parochial, of being envious and wanting to choke off success.  I’m not and I don’t.

Cardiff clearly does have an important role to play in the economy and labour market of south east Wales, and it’s one that is – thanks to massive past investment – easier to realise than elsewhere. But it is not the solution it likes to claim.

Unbalanced growth

Cardiff’s success is the result of incredibly unbalanced economic growth in Wales. Since 2010, nearly half of all the new jobs created in Wales – 48% – have been in Cardiff. That’s a far greater share of economic goodies than enjoyed by London and the south east of England compared with the rest of England over the same period.

There, the  government is finally waking up to its friends in the north.  It has suddenly discovered that all is not rosy in Blyth and Bishop Auckland, with the concept of ‘leveling up’ now driving major investment decisions as well as ministerial visits.

For too long, there has been no regional policy for Wales. At worst, city deals have been foisted onto a country for which they are a poor fit. The difficult questions of the economic relationships between the north and south, the challenge of developing mid Wales, and the complexity of the south Wales valleys have never been teased out. The solutions are not easy – but a government neglects them at its peril.

Cardiff’s Capital Ambition has much to commend it for Cardiff itself. But despite its claims it is not a substitute for development in Aberystwyth, Anglesey or even Abergavenny.  Wales’ economy needs to be re-balanced just as much if not more than England’s – and overweening ambition won’t help.

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation.

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