And it came to pass that a City Deal was signed: a £1.2bn commitment to the Cardiff Capital Region was made on Tuesday afternoon by the UK Government, the Welsh Government, and 10 local authorities in Wales. The deal will facilitate the building of infrastructure and other development projects to lift the Welsh economy.
The idea behind city deals is fairly simple: give cities outside London and the regions around them the opportunity to self-govern, and provide them with resources so that they can grow. There is a belief that, inherently, they should benefit local business.
Like FDI, city deals have broad support across the political spectrum. As they’re largely a Conservative concept, it’s unsurprising that the City Deal for the Cardiff Capital Region has the support of the Welsh Conservatives, who describe it as “once in a generation” opportunity. The Labour-run government and local authorities making up the region are all in support, almost certainly because of the large pot of money that will effectively come their way.
Plaid Cymru’s leader Leanne Wood pointed out that similar deals for Swansea and for rural parts of Wales are a must if prosperity is to be spread throughout Wales.
City Deals are not without their critics though. The Bevan Foundation says the assumption that investment in cities will yield benefits to the poorer areas around them simply isn’t true. They point to Cardiff Bay, where hundreds of millions was spent, but little benefit was conferred on the “southern arc” of poverty that stretches from St. Mellons to Ely. Eluned Parrot of the Welsh Lib Dems pointed out late in 2015 that without the appropriate devolved powers, the City Deal is “nothing more than a sham”.
In its manifesto, the CBI is keen to point out that Wales really needs to get on with building infrastructure. They and many others say the warm words uttered by politicians about the South Wales Metro have to date not been matched with activity on the ground. It is hoped the City Deal will change all this.
The infrastructure projects mooted so far – M4, South Wales Metro, rail electrification – have seen little in the way of real progress. From a personal perspective, the list is almost fantastical in nature; politicians could add “unicorns frolicking in the Brecon Beacons” to it and it would seem no more unreal. It seems some are aware of the shortcomings on delivery so far: Plaid has proposed to establish a new body, National Infrastructure Commission Wales to deliver on infrastructure. The Welsh Conservatives announced only three days ago that they would create a “single transport body with responsibility for roads, rail and buses in Wales as part of a drive to deliver an integrated approach to transport development across Wales.”
Of course, infrastructure is about more than transport, and one area in which Wales is lagging is in broadband coverage. The Ofcom “Connected Nations” report of 2015 shows that much improvement was made in Wales over the previous year – but also that Wales is still behind other parts of the UK. Needless to say this hasn’t gone unnoticed among politicians. Last October, the Welsh Lib Dems called internet speeds in rural Wales a disgrace, while the Welsh Conservatives’ AM Darren Millar expressed his concern last year about the delays to rolling out superfast broadband. It will be interesting to see what, if any, developments there are to broadband across Wales over the next Assembly term. Digital connectivity is now an imperative, and for many people it’s as essential as their electricity and gas supplies.
Stephen Crabb’s comment that “the City Deal provides the springboard for Cardiff to emerge as a leading engine of growth in the UK” is not only praise for the deal, but a pointer to the reality that much remains to be done across the nation to ensure the conditions are right for businesses to grow and flourish. The pleasant political rhetoric now needs to be matched with action and one hopes the broad political consensus will benefit this. Wales’ politicians and civil servants can ill afford to navel-gaze and immerse themselves in the Committees, Task and Finish Groups, and other bodies that have promised plenty but delivered little.
Tomorrow, in the final installment of this series of articles on politics in Wales, we’ll look at the bigger picture – the global economic environment, and the approach of our elected representatives in the Bay.