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Is Cardiff City Deal a Fair Deal?

December 16th 2016

The report of Cardiff City Region’s Growth and Competitiveness Commission, launched today, is a promising start says Victoria Winckler. The challenge will be to make it happen.

John Lewis 1000

The long-awaited report of the Commission on Growth and Competitiveness was launched today.

I had feared that it would amount to a blind dash for growth and be no more than the case for Cardiff, but in fact it offers a very welcome balanced and long-term approach to the region’s future.  The reason for this is that it sees ‘inclusion’ – both spatial and social – as central to the approach. Indeed, in a probably unwitting nod to the Bevan Foundation’s strapline of a ‘fair, prosperous and sustainable’ Wales, the Commission says:

“Our assessment is that the Cardiff Capital Region can be more prosperous, more inclusive and more sustainable.” [page 6]

In terms of being spatially inclusive, the report argues that multi-centred growth is central to the region’s development. Throughout it points to ‘polycentric’ growth or ‘multiple locations of growth’ to underpin the approach. While it doesn’t go so far as to echo our call for Merthyr Tydfil and other suitable areas to be designated as ‘growth poles’ the recognition that future growth is about the ‘region’ as well as ‘the city’ is very welcome.

The Commission also gives a welcome recognition to the importance of social inclusion. It includes a section specifically on reducing poverty, and also includes some important recommendations to reduce inequality in the economy and labour market. These cover increasing employment rates in all areas, raising median incomes, and increasing adult qualifications and skills especially amongst those with few or no qualifications.

So it’s pretty clear that there will not be any change unless there is action to benefit those in the bottom half of the labour market and income distribution. I can only hope that this will mark an end once and for all to the idea that more high paid and high skill jobs are the only solution.

So far, so good, but what next?

There are three big challenges that I can see at first glance.

First, there are huge issues about delivery.

There are some very serious questions about delivery, much deeper than whether Cardiff Council will actually support the deal. It’s gone mostly unnoticed but there are two city region groups – one the UK Government’s City Deal group of 10 local authorities and the other the Welsh Government’s Cardiff Capital Region board, comprising a mix of some local authorities and businesses. Add to that the plethora of reports by task groups, advisory boards and consultants about the city region that occupy 6 pages of the Commission’s 49 page-report. Cardiff Council’s alleged vacillation is nothing compared to this shambolic inability to grasp the nettle. It’ll take more than overcoming the ‘parochialism’ that Kevin Morgan claims bedevils progress to overcome this extraordinary failure of leadership.

Second, the Commission’s recognition of the importance of social and spatial inclusion needs to be translated into reality.

Whether their suggestion that the focus should be on multi-centred growth will withstand the calls of developers to grow demand in Cardiff remains to be seen. I don’t see property developers queuing up to build office space in valleys towsn – they’re champing at the bit down the bay. So there needs to be more than wishful thinking to make multi-centred growth actually happen.

And will the Commission’s recommendations for action at the bottom of the labour market be enough to trump the age-old defence of trickle down from rich to poor? That will need not only action by local authorities but intervention by Welsh Government and, crucially, a change in business model for some businesses. So we will see.

Third, it all feels a bit ‘business as usual’.

While the report acknowledges the potential impact of Brexit, our ageing society and climate change, they feel like add-ons. The Commission is probably right to seek to “to build the capacity for individuals, households and firms to meet [new] challenges and opportunities, rather than trying to predict the future and provide an answer”, it does mean that the report is pretty much “business as usual”.  It’s not clear what capacity is needed to be able to respond to the challenges, nor how the Commission’s approach helps to provide it. And the future will be here very soon, in the shape of driverless cars, shops without checkouts and automated ticketing – at the very least we need to be factoring it in.

So my verdict? A good start, keep up the good work!

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation. The Bevan Foundation’s submissions to the Commission on Growth and Competitiveness are available here.   The Foundation will be undertaking more work on these issues in the next few months. 

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