The concept of the ‘city region’, and the possibility of the area around Cardiff being treated and developed as one, is something which has received a lot of attention of late. The concept is an interesting one and seems to promise much for the area itself, but I’m sure that those of us from a little further afield can be forgiven for viewing it with a rather more wary eye.
In that context, I certainly welcome the way in which the report published earlier this week by the City Regions Task and Finish Group (available here) hasn’t constrained itself to the Cardiff area, and has asked whether there are other potential areas which could be considered as city regions.
It’s not that I’m against development and growth in the South East; it’s more the case that I don’t want to see economic Wales mirroring economic UK – an economically successful south east into which the rest of us feed talent and youth whilst we in turn grow older and depend on what are politely called ‘fiscal transfers’. The whole point, in economic terms, of devolution for me is to build a different and more decentralised economy in Wales rather than just replicate the errors of the past on a smaller scale.
The report doesn’t do a lot to quell my fears. Certainly, it states that “We found no specific evidence to suggest that a city region’s existence had a negative impact on the areas outside it: indeed, they tend to benefit.” But absence of the negative isn’t the same as presence of the positive, and the ‘tendency’ to benefit comes with caveats, not least in relation to distance and whether all investment is channelled into the region..
My concern about the issue isn’t helped by the wording of the task allocated to the group, namely “to decide, on the basis of objective evidence, whether a city region approach to economic development will deliver an increase in jobs and prosperity for Wales as a whole”. There is a significant difference between “Wales as a whole” and “the whole of Wales”. After all, “the UK as a whole” could be said to benefit from the concentration of economic activity and wealth in the South East; it’s a good deal less clear that the “whole of the UK” benefits.
One thing that I welcome in the report is the recognition that city regions are not a panacea. Indeed, they’re not all successful. I’ve been concerned that that was not being understood in some of the reports and articles I’ve read; correlation between size success is not the same as a causal link. That’s the same point that I and others made in relation to the Flotilla Effect. Larger cities are no more certain to succeed than are smaller states; it all depends on the detail. All we can truly say is that they're not certain to fail either.
The city region concept has been presented to date as a radical change in approach which will start to address Wales’ relatively poor economic performance. But I wonder whether it is really radical enough. The argument is based on what has happened elsewhere in the past and on what is still happening today – but is it what will happen tomorrow?
The report itself draws attention to the fact that digital connectivity is likely to become more important than physical connectivity; does that tell us we should be looking to do something different rather than copying what others have done?
One final quote from the report which struck me – “In Wales, our cities generate only 33% of our wealth, the lowest proportion of all UK nations and regions”. As presented, it’s a problem; something we need to change if we want to catch up. But what if it’s actually a huge advantage, and something on which we can build a different type of economy?