Friday 9 March 2012

City Regions

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?


Unknown said...

A simple comparison across the UK indicates that the lack of urban 'mass' in Wales and our lower skill levels are major contribitors to our lower productivity and wages

Wow, would this be across the same UK that is £1,000,000,000,000 in debt?

When are we going to wake up and realise that paying our bills on the UKs credit card is no different to doing it on our own.

forestry investment said...

The last paragraph quite well presents an interesting alternative point of view. The 33pc number can also be construed as meaning that wealth in Wales is more evenly spread than elsewhere in the UK. Whilst much of England's wealth is indeed in London and the SE, in Wales it is good if its not all concentrated in Cardiff.

John Dixon said...

Precisely. There are far too many who seem to think that 'prosperity' will come from aping what has happened elsewhere - effectively creating a 'rich' south east and a 'poor' rest (although even the 'poor' are 'rich' compared to many in the world). But the point of taking responsibility for ourselves is to do it our way - what wealth we have needs to be shared more evenly (geographically, as well as socially) not concentrated in one corner.

Jac o' the North, said...

This city region nonsense has been on the agenda for over 20 years. I can remember Vincent Kane in his WoS column pushing it; and some bloke running the Cardiff Bay Business Forum or whatever it was called. Back then the term used was 'city state'.

The idea was that by using Wales' 3 million population and stressing its capital status, Cardiff could rise above comparable cities like Leicester and Hull to compete with the big boys for investment and (UK) government attention. But then, as now, the benefits would accrue to Cardiff.

The terminology may have changed but the basic idea hasn't. Which is why I cannot understand why AMs and others from outside of Cardiff are even entertaining this idea born in the Cardiff & County Club.

John Dixon said...


"I cannot understand why AMs and others from outside of Cardiff are even entertaining this idea"

Swept along in a wave of enthusiasm with no better ideas themselves probably. And don't overlook the fact that around half of the FPTP constituencies in Wales fall into the likely 'city region', and that seats held by the governing party fall heavily inside the region, by some amazing conincidence.