Over the past few weeks, key leaders from the Cardiff Capital Region have been sharing their thoughts on the region’s response to Covid-19 and the way ahead in the wake of the pandemic, in a series of podcasts on Business News Wales.
In their comments, the six participants ranged over every aspect of the CCR City Deal, its strategy, and the way it works. Here are some of the key messages that came out of the conversations.
The pandemic has been a huge trauma and has presented massive challenges and uncertainty to businesses and individuals. It’s perhaps not surprising that in this confusion, some people have asked whether this is the time for the CCR City Deal, and whether local authorities shouldn’t concentrate their energies on solving local problems.
City Deal Director Kellie Beirne argued passionately that this is not the time for local authorities to turn their back on regional cooperation. On the contrary, now more than ever the CCR’s businesses and communities need their political representatives to take a regional, not just a local perspective.
The way ahead for the Capital Region is not for its local authorities to return to a parochial view. Instead, we must take the opportunity presented by the post-Covid conditions to “fundamentally reinvent our future” as a region, she argued. Key regional issues, such as the uneven distribution of economic resources and infrastructure, demand a region-wide policy approach and investment strategy.
CCR had agreed a strategy and plan and were actively working on investment projects before the pandemic struck, including: digital initiatives such as Full Fibre to the Premise and 5G; Homes for the Region; the Graduate programme; and the Life Sciences Park. In the new conditions of uncertainty, shouldn’t CCR reconsider its strategy, revisit its initiatives and perhaps adapt in the light of events?
In fact, CCR did exactly that in the early weeks of the lockdown. The plan was revisited to ensure that it stood the test of this particular challenge and could flex its focus to enable the CCR to respond effectively to the current situation.
The conclusion, as CCR Chief Operating Officer Rhys Thomas explained in his podcast, was that the strategy was still the correct one. The priority sectors that had previously been identified – medical devices and diagnostics, fintech, cyber security, AI, manufacturing etc. – had all unequivocally proved their importance during the lockdown and would continue to do so.
However, 10 post Covid-19 priorities were created, and subsequently agreed by the cabinet in May, to ensure that all activity undertaken would enable the CCR and the City Deal to make a significant contribution to the creation of a positive post Covid-19 legacy. Those priorities can be read here.
A key focus of the CCR before the pandemic was skills, and in his podcast the Chair of the Regional Skills Partnership, Leigh Hughes, described how the lockdown and the prospect of higher unemployment in the months to come demonstrated the importance of transferable skills.
Leigh said that many firms had showed just how dynamic and innovative they could be in their response to the pandemic. The region’s workers too need to be versatile and flexible. Some jobs have disappeared; others are changing. Education and training providers need to provide learners, young and old, with a foundation of transferable skills that will help them move from job to job or sector to sector.
Covid-19 has shown the importance of different levels of government working together. In the early weeks of the lockdown, Welsh Government sought to offer business support that complemented that being offered by the UK Government, and local authorities were tasked with delivering some of the support, such as business rates relief.
CCR too endeavoured to provide complementary support rather than trying to duplicate things that other levels of government were doing. The chairman of the Economic Growth Partnership, Frank Homes, argued that the success of the region depended on the highest level of collaboration and cohesion between the three tiers of government, and also between the public sector, private sector and academia.
He also argued that the CCR should not look at itself in isolation, but also look to collaborate with other regions, not least with neighbouring regions in England through the Western Gateway.
Finally, he urged that the public sector should “become a really good choice for high level, capable people”, and that Welsh Government should “better embrace” delegating delivery of projects to “the best placed private companies and institutions to hand.”
With its investment focus on medical devices and diagnostics, compound semiconductors, fintech and cybersecurity, it might seem as if CCR is only interested in boosting high value, high wage sectors in the coastal cities of Cardiff and Newport.
But this would be to misunderstand the purpose and intention of the City Deal and its leaders. Yes, those sectors are at the centre of the CCR’s investment strategy, but that’s because they have been identified as sectors where the region has a pre-existing strength and an opportunity for growth. And crucially, the investments in those sectors are intended to create clusters with supply chain benefits that will spread throughout the region.
The chairman of the CCR Regional Cabinet, Anthony Hunt, expressed the intention behind it all in his podcast. He said the focus had to be on the CCR as one region. “We’ve got the cities of Cardiff and Newport, but we’ve also got the valleys communities,” he said. “We need to spread the prosperity throughout the region.”
A key part of this is the new Challenge Fund, designed to channel money towards SMEs that can provide innovative solutions to major public sector problems such as decarbonisation, health and wellbeing. This is expected to benefit smaller companies and their staff throughout the region; particularly in less advantaged communities, whether they are in the upper reaches of the valleys or in deprived areas of Cardiff and Newport.
Also achieving this is the newly announced “Homes for the Region” project – with its Viability Gap Fund designed to unlock housing development on sites across the region considered uneconomic to build on.
Finally, CCR will only work truly effectively as a region if its connectivity is improved, both in terms of physical transport and digital infrastructure. This was the subject of the podcast with the Chairman of the CCR Regional Transport Authority, Bridgend Council Leader Huw David.
Huw said the pandemic and lockdown had accelerated “at breakneck speed” the gradual shift already taking place towards digital ways of working and doing business, proving the need to invest further in the region’s digital infrastructure.
And he talked at length about the pandemic’s implications for transport and travel. Investment projects such as Metro Plus are important not just for improving connectivity, but also as catalysts for bringing new businesses, new housing and regeneration into some of the region’s most deprived communities. In this sense they bind the region together figuratively as well as physically.
The early weeks of the lockdown saw a sharp drop in travel, giving urban dwellers a vision of cleaner air and quieter streets. With the climate emergency still pressing, CCR is looking to invest in ultra-low emission vehicle technologies. And the region is also boosting active travel, turning over more of its town and city areas to cycle lanes and wider footpaths.
Despite the gloomy background, the podcast series gave a bright vision of a City Region focused on pushing ahead with its investment plans, determined to boost opportunity-seeking businesses and make sure the benefits from growth are felt in every one of its communities. The CCR’s leaders are looking ahead with confidence and optimism, and committed to ensuring no-one gets left behind in the region’s progress.