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City-Regions: the wrong agenda for Wales

February 23rd 2015

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We are city-region agnostics.

The main reason for our scepticism is that we have yet to hear a persuasive argument for how city regions in Wales will deliver a more vibrant economy and better quality of life for people living within Wales’ two proclaimed city regions – Cardiff and Swansea, let alone the whole of Wales, as claimed by the advocates of the city region agenda.  The unspoken logic of those who support city regions is based on the now discredited faith in a ‘trickle down’ effect – that somehow growth in particular economic sectors in Cardiff and Swansea will spread into their respective regions’ poorer communities.

The problem with this assumption is that, plainly, it doesn’t work.

The highest periods of growth in the UK economy have also seen rises in the rate of poverty and the greatest levels of inequality in over a century.

Since the end of the 1970’s British economic policy has rejected Keynesianism and embraced the economic orthodoxy of neo-liberalism.  This has rethought the role of the state and its responsibility to people.  Essentially the UK government for the last thirty years has rejected the idea that markets could be managed, and has deregulated both labour and financial markets.

In this orthodoxy, cities were seen as the location and basis for growth.  Highly influenced by the work of Richard Florida, cities have been seen as the engines of the modern economy, based on theories of agglomeration of economic activities, the formation of ‘creative classes’ and attraction of international capital.  Cities have been pitched in a furious competition to be  classed as a ‘global city’.  The strategy is based on massive infrastructural investment especially in rapid transport systems, the fostering of Central Business Districts and the creation of modern cultural and artistic institutions as the playground of the new urban elite.  London is often cited as one such city, yet its inner boroughs have the same 31% child poverty rate as Wales.

Is this the kind of success we are chasing with our City Region Plans in Wales?

Over the last two weeks the Cardiff and Swansea City Regions have published their very glossy manifestos, which set our their respective visions for regional growth.  Both documents are very much aligned with the orthodoxy of competitive cities, and the race for foreign direct investment.  Neither document addresses the issue of poverty or low-income levels experienced in their poorest communities, or considers sustainability in a social, economic, cultural or environmental sense.  In fact, there are no references at all in either document to tackling poverty or to the Future Generations Bill.  The documents are a blind pursuit of economic growth regardless of who it benefits and are symptomatic of the complete absence of a rational economic plan for Wales identified by Gerry Holtham, a respected economist and expert on the Welsh economy.

This is a continuation of the orthodoxy that created the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, which spent hundreds of millions of pounds developing the whole of the Bay area of Cardiff, with no tangible economic benefit for Cardiff’s southern arc of poverty which stretches from St Mellon’s to Ely.

In our view, Wales needs a strategy to develop a more ‘distributed’ economy with employment created throughout our nation.  

Our Deep Place Study Report on Tredegar argues that the economic, social, environmental and cultural sustainability of communities, and the principle means of tackling poverty, is to be found by looking closely at what we already have and creating new opportunities in energy, food, care and e-working.  These sectors offer ways of building local economies around indigenous enterprise, public services and people.  Wales needs a radical new approach to our economic development.  The City Region offers a grander scale of the same orthodoxy that has failed us for the last 30 years.

Professor Dave Adamson is Emeritus Professor at University of South Wales.

Dr Mark Lang is Honorary Associate at Cardiff University’s Sustainable Places Research Institute. 

Both are consultants specialising in place, local economics and the anti-poverty agenda.

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One Response to “City-Regions: the wrong agenda for Wales”

  1. Colin Davies says:

    Re ‘City-Regions: the wrong agenda for Wales’, by Dave Adamson & Mark Lang
    Spot on; I’ve thought for a while that the whole City-Region idea doesn’t in any way address the ‘tackling poverty’ agenda, apart from the scant ( and now surely wholly discredited?) proposal that the ‘trickle down’ effect will take care of that issue!

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