You wait for a city region to arrive and then two arrive within a week. February saw the announcement of the Great Western Cities initiative and a few days later the Cardiff Capital Region (CRR) report.
Whether one considers City Regionalism in its Welsh or South West Britain context, the concept of a City Region in Wales has finally come of age. Both approaches recognise need to develop projects, financial arrangements and governance mechanisms which more accurately reflect the lives of 1.5million people in South East Wales. The Cardiff Captial Region report outlines the stakes by taking a global perspective on how cities as economic entities compete for investment. A perspective that has been, up to now, lacking.
One of the persistent messages of the CCR is the importance of Metro as a catalyst project and it is commended that the report recognises the need to act regionally about transport, strategic land-use planning and economic development. The glimpses of the graphic identity in the CCR report also suggest that place branding should be within the remit of this new organisation to ensure we address the world in an unified vocabulary.
These announcements are exciting, but let's not get too carried away.
The 2014 report of the City Growth Commission made it clear that other City Regions are much more advanced. This mirrors my own experience. I worked for two of the ten Greater Manchester Local Authorities and was involved with regional prioritisation of strategic development sites as well as Metrolink extensions. That was over thirteen years ago. Since then the Manchester City Region has remade itself, significantly by focussing upon many of the priorities now outlined in the CRR report. By my own reckoning the CCR is probably fifteen years behind Greater Manchester and needs to create momentum quickly and then sustain it. Getting the new body outlined in the report operational quickly is going to be critical. There are a host of factors that could prevent this but my main fear is that the City Regionalism in SE Wales becomes distracted by Local Government reorganisation. A new body needs to be effective and operational as soon as possible.
"One of the persistent messages of the CCR is the importance of Metro as a catalyst project"
Finally, my thoughts turn to Newport and its role within the Great Western City region in particular. It is going to need to assert itself as a credible counter-proposition to Cardiff and Bristol. I could draw comparisons here with Salford - Manchester and Newport - Cardiff. Newport needs to position itself on experience, not just price and proximity. The sound bite taken from the Leader of Newport City Council at the Great Western Cities launch was unfortunate, which was: "we have lots of housing land here" (therefore we are cheaper than our neighbours). Newport needs to be (and is) more than merely a Value version of Cardiff. Newport is beginning to awake from its recent slumber and been making bold steps by growing new tech businesses, getting people living in the city centre and expanding the city's hospitality industry, yet a broader narrative about the City's core role remains opaque. The new city region context creates both the need and the opportunity for Newport’s narrative to be clearly heard.
South East Wales is now represented by two City Regions. The Cardiff Capital Region and the Great Western Cities initiative are both saying the right things, but the rest of the world is not going to wait for either to turn talk into action. Let's hope that this shift in mentality can deliver sustained economic momentum and tangible increase in quality of life. By placing Metro at the top of priority list, the CCR is essentially giving itself one opportunity to get this right. Get an internationally credible Metro operational and the rest will be made so much easier to deliver. Fail at Metro and almost every other aspiration within the CCR report becomes compromised.
By James Brown