The Londonification of Cardiff

April 21, 2019 6 Comments

It’s a commonplace that the UK has the least well-balanced economy in Western Europe.  While London and its region, dominated by financial and allied services, continue to grow and thrive, the rest of the country is bogged in post-industrial depression, suffering still from the effects of George Osborne’s planned ‘austerity’ (still very much with us, of course) and Brexit blight.  London can almost be regarded as a separate city-state.  Its economy shares little in common with the rest of the UK.  To add insult to injury, it swallows the lion’s share of large-scale public investment, with projects like Crossrail, the third Heathrow runway and HS2, and it sucks in many of the most skilled of our young people.

Swansea city centre

What’s less remarked on, but increasingly obvious, is a similar split in Wales.  Even the most fleeting of visits to the centre of Cardiff is enough to show that the city and its region seems very different, these days, from the rest of the country.  Smart shops fill the streets – shops you’ll find nowhere else in Wales.  Its economy looks much more like that of thriving cities in England than other centres in Wales.  The private service sector – insurers, lawyers, finance and media firms, and the like – dominate employment and output; only 9% work in manufacturing.  Most Wales-wide bodies have their headquarters in the capital, which is also the site of most ‘national’ attractions and sports venues.  Cardiff is the home of the biggest and strongest of Wales’s universities, and in general the city attracts talented young people from elsewhere in Wales, drawn by well-paid jobs and social opportunity – so depriving their home towns of much needed energy and enterprise.

Contrast Swansea, where the centre now begins to resemble that of a third world city, with its air of neglect, dozens of closed shops, and half-completed roadworks, abandoned by their bankrupt contractors.  And while a few towns, like Narberth, Cardigan and Llandeilo, have succeeded in building small pockets of prosperity, many Welsh towns look depressed and purposeless (unless as dormitories for Cardiff).

Sophia Gardens

Since the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales in 1999 Cardiff’s dominance has increased, as the city has attracted disproportionately more investment and tourism.  Its GDP per capita stood at €33,000 in 2016, far ahead of any other county (Anglesey’s was a mere €18,600).  There have been very few attempts to counter the process.  Edwina Hart devolved some Welsh Government jobs (though not senior posts) to other parts of Wales (Merthyr, Aberystwyth and Llandudno), but otherwise movement has been centripetal rather than centrifugal.  A telling case is Glamorgan County Cricket Club, which since the development of Sophia Gardens has all but abandoned its other grounds around Wales.  Likewise, when the BBC decided to move from its central Llandaf site it apparently gave no thought to the possibility of moving out of Cardiff, which would have had a powerful effect on media and economy alike.  (To its credit, S4C has moved part of itself to Carmarthen.)

There used to be a strategy and a mechanism for trying to mitigate increasing economic centralisation in Britain.  It was called regional policy.  But UK regional policy was effectively abandoned by Margaret Thatcher, and ‘devolved upwards’ to the European Union.  For many years Wales has benefitted, if that’s the word, from successive programmes of regional assistance.  In the current round, from 2014 to 2020, £2.1 billion will have arrived from Brussels in the form of structural funds, mainly for West Wales and the Valleys, an EU area identified as earning 75% (or less) of average GDP per capita.  In addition Wales has received funds through other streams, especially the Common Agricultural Policy.

It’s arguable that without these funds Wales outside the Cardiff region would have fared even worse than it has.  Swansea University’s new Bay campus, for example, would not have happened without them.  (Though public perception of their benefits has hardly been obvious, since all but five Welsh counties voted in favour of Brexit in the 2016 referendum.)   The effect could have been stronger if central UK capital funding had supported Welsh schemes.  But its recent record has been woeful, as decision after decision has gone against Wales, including the Swansea Tidal Lagoon, railway electrification beyond Cardiff and – if you regard it as a good thing – the Wylfa Newydd nuclear power station.  Cynics might suspect that the current Secretary of State for Wales is actively working against Welsh interests rather than on their behalf.

True, other packages are on the way.  There are two mixed (public-private) ‘City Deals’ intended to boost jobs and GDP: £1.2 billion for Cardiff over 20 years, and £2.3 billion for Swansea over 15 years.  But the former will exacerbate the ‘Londonisation’ effect, while the second is mired in controversy, and both have been criticised in advance for failing to distribute benefits widely enough in Welsh society, or even geographically.  And then there’s the infamous plan to build the M4 extension, which, if it goes ahead, will again privilege the south-east fringe of Wales at the expense of other parts of Wales.

New BBC building, Cardiff

Brexit, if we ever reach it, will abolish all the EU funds.  The UK government plans to establish a ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’ in the place of the EU structural funds.  In theory, it could provide an opportunity, shorn of the Byzantine complexity of the EU’s schemes.  But the details of how it will work are completely unclear.  For Wales there are two critical questions about it.  First, how much money will flow from it to Wales?  The EU structural funds were assigned on the basis of need, but need is a consideration that rarely bothers the current UK government.  Second, who will distribute the funds?  It’s not clear that the Welsh Government will have that role, or whether the UK government will keep all control.  But a secondary question is whether new ‘prosperity funds’ will be used to rebalance the Welsh economy towards those areas, outside the Cardiff region, that have most need of it.  In other words, what will be the criteria for use of the replacement money?

Luckily, Cardiff isn’t yet a Welsh London.  It doesn’t have Russian plutocrats lounging in basement swimming pools.  There are no Walkie-Talkies, Cheese-Graters or Shards.  Few multinationals have their HQs there, and large-scale research and development is thin on the ground.  It’s also true that Cardiff’s affluence masks plenty of poverty, thanks to the chronic UK addiction to economic and social inequality.

But there is a Cardiff problem, and it’s likely to worsen.  Unless governments, both the Welsh and UK governments, wake up to it, more and more wealth – money and people – will gravitate to the city and its region, and the economic gap with the rest of Wales will grow.

Comments (6)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Matt Youde says:

    This was generally a vital contribution to discourse and debate about Wales. I agree with pretty much all of it. It’s a shame, then, that I feel you’re misrepresenting cities and peoples in the Global South by your ‘Third world city’ reference. It wasn’t necessary, and perpetuates problematic ideas about those places compared to us. Hope you’ll take that on board!

    • Andrew Green says:

      Point taken, Matt, it was clumsy. Though if you’ve ever been to Johannesburg you might recognise some of the same features of urban change (on a much smaller scale) happening in Swansea. Those with long memories can recall a time when the centre was flourishing and a magnet for the region.

  2. Huw Bowen says:

    Succinct and very much to the point. This should be required reading for Welsh Government.

  3. Clifford says:

    This is an excellent post, but I think it’s worth remembering that Cardiff’s increasing dominance of Wales’ commercial and cultural life isn’t a recent phenomenon. Cardiff secured the University College of South Wales & Monmouthshire in 1883, the first Welsh BBC office in 1923, a monopoly on Welsh rugby internationals after 1954, and the Welsh Office in 1965. Devolution – and the general renewed demographic and economic vigour of most larger British cities in the early 2000s – have reinforced a long-running trend.

    I also think that Cardiff’s planners have (despite a few obvious mistakes) been a bit more successful than Swansea in creating a liveable and investable city over the years. Swansea’s Quadrant and its bus station left the former transport and commercial hub of High Street isolated after they opened in 1979, then the city allowed retailers and office jobs to drift slowly to the Enterprise Park and other out-of-town locations in the 80s and 90s. While the Marina was a great regeneration project, it never really became the ‘destination’ envisaged or integrated with the retail core. The new Swansea University Bay campus is impressive, but most successful university cities (including Cardiff) have their university in or very near the centre, where the footfall of staff and students supports the shops and cafes.

    • Andrew Green says:

      Yes, I agree. My point was that the dominance has accelerated since 1999. I was in Swansea’s Guildhall when Ron Davies visited to hear the case for Swansea as the home of the National Assembly. I wonder whether Swansea would have been quite so forgotten if that had happened? I’m sure you’re right about Cardiff’s superior urban planning strategy over the years. Exporting shops – and even more important, jobs – from the centre of Swansea has been very damaging.

      • Clifford says:

        I remember the heady days of Swansea’s bid to host the National Assembly. While it certainly energised the city (and arguably gave us the consolation prizes of the National Pool and the Waterfront Museum), in retrospect it was wishful thinking. In deciding on Cardiff Bay, Ron Davies said something like “Wales has invested 40 years in promoting Cardiff as our capital” and of course the Welsh administrative and media elite were too deeply entrenched there to budge.

        I don’t think we can attribute Cardiff’s recent success just to devolution. I’m still amazed that the city could secure not one but TWO massive National Lottery-funded facilities – the Millennium Stadium in 1999 and the Millennium Centre in 2004. In the 90s it was generally assumed the city had a choice between Lottery backing for either the rugby stadium or an opera house, so the construction of both was a major coup, and a city similar in size to Coventry or Leicester now has the amenities you’d expect of a metropolis with a million or more people. Clearly UK decision-makers, just as much as Welsh ones, have been happy to back Cardiff’s proverbial horse.

Leave a Reply