The Cardiff Capital Region Board has published its strategic vision for the region entitled "Powering the Welsh Economy". Here, Dr Adrian Healy reflects on the report's initial vision for the region.
Powering the Welsh Economy marks an important milestone in the development of the city region concept in Wales. This report sets out the advice of the Cardiff Capital Region Board on how best to provide the leadership, vision and strategic direction for the Cardiff Capital Region. Arguably it also signals a possible new chapter in the development of the Cardiff Capital Region itself. There is much to be welcomed in the report, but it also leaves several important questions unanswered.
The economic challenges facing the Cardiff Capital Region, and the wider Welsh economy, are now well-known. Powering the Welsh Economy takes a particular perspective on how this can be tackled promoting four key themes: connectivity; innovation and growth; skills, and identity. This competitiveness-led agenda is not unusual in city region debates focused on securing economic growth. Indeed, much of the argument in favour of a city-region approach is predicated on the advantages to be gained through securing the agglomeration benefits of a larger base of businesses, skills and expertise.
In pursuing this agenda, the report argues that the Cardiff Capital Region is not only "in competition with our near neighbours, but also with places thousands of miles away" (p.10). This notion of competition for inward investment pervades the report and provides the foundations for its outward facing tone. By promoting a city-region approach it is anticipated that the Cardiff Capital Region, and by extension the Welsh economy, will reap the "benefits that can arise through scale, shared risk and reward and efficient and coordinated investment decisions" (p.9). This is a powerful argument and highlights the strengths that can be provided by facilitating collaborative working across the city-region.
Whilst the report is strong on ambition, it remains surprisingly quiet on how the vision and aspirations it sets out might be achieved. The report might also be criticised for its lack of consideration of social and environmental goals, largely seeing the latter as part of the 'offer' to attract and retain talent and mobile investment. To be fair, Roger Lewis, Chair of the CCR Board, in his closing remarks at the launch of Powering the Welsh Economy, emphasised the importance of tackling poverty in the Cardiff Capital Region but, as it stands, the report risks suggestions that this is but a secondary consideration to the growth objectives that pervade the report.
There is much to be commended in this report, and many of the provisions made under each of the four themes reflect the accepted challenges facing the city region and the latest thinking on how to build globally competitive economies. Taken as a whole, however, the report raises a number of questions about the city region is perceived and how its development might be promoted.
Firstly, the report is strangely quiet on what the city region concept is intending to achieve. The one objective that it is explicitly identified states that the ambition is to bring both GVA per capita and gross wages in line with the UK average (excluding London). A laudable ambition that few would decry. Whether consideration should also be given to other dimensions of a thriving city-region is a question that the report makes no comment on, beyond suggesting that sustained success requires economic, social and environmental success that benefits all our communities.
The report also lacks detail as to what might be done and how. For example, it highlights six key sectors as most relevant to the future development of the Cardiff City Region, the potential strengths of a Cardiff Innovation System, the need to support business start-ups and to invest in property infrastructure. However, beyond identifying opportunities the report makes few concrete recommendations, nor are the implications of the proposed approach spelt out. Similarly, the report argues that investments in employment land should principally be drawn from a demand perspective, but should also "recognise the needs of our more disadvantaged communities", a balance that can be hard to find in practice.
Not surprisingly, given the scale of investments occurring in the city region, there is a strong emphasis in the report on the proposed metro as part of the connectivity agenda. However, the apparent reliance on connectivity enhancements to both fuel and to spread the benefits of economic growth is an article of faith that past evidence suggests will need substantial complementary actions to achieve.
Finally, the report is silent on the spatial distribution of activity across the Cardiff Capital Region. One reading of the text could suggest that the emphasis of activity will be found in the city of Cardiff and its immediate hinterlands, including Newport. This assumed geography was reinforced during the launch of the document with the repeated assertion that growth would 'radiate out'. Whilst it is true that much growth will be centred on the economic centres of Cardiff and Newport the opportunity to explore alternative patterns of economic development with the Cardiff Capital Region should not be lost.
Overall, publication of Powering the Welsh Economy should be welcomed. It is strong on ambition and sets out some clear challenges for the future, not least in its call for a greater level of cooperation towards a shared agenda. As always though, the devil is in the detail. What are the actions that will transform the well-being of those living throughout the Cardiff Capital Region? There are many exciting initiatives already underway that are beginning to transform the lives of individuals, households and communities. But, as the report acknowledges, much more remains to be done if we are really to share the risks and rewards provided by operating at a greater scale. Breaking down artificial administrative boundaries and harnessing the assets, capabilities and skills of actors throughout the Cardiff Capital Region is essential if we are to secure truly transformative change.
Powering the Welsh Economy is the fruit of 12 months of intensive deliberations by a highly experienced and knowledgeable group, who have drawn widely on additional advice. The next 12 months are now crucial if we are to achieve a step change in the fortunes of the Cardiff Capital Region. That the report is lacking in recommendations for the future should not be seen as a weakness, but as the opportunity for all to shape the agenda for change. If we grasp the call for greater collaboration which forms the centrepiece of the report then it will have achieved its purpose, for we will transform the future of the Cardiff Capital Region ourselves.