Wider Impacts of South Wales Metro (article for Bevan Foundation July 2016)

Full text of my article for The Bevan Foundation July 4 2016

I have spent much of the last six years involved in some way in what has become known as the South Wales (or Cardiff Capital Region) Metro; initially as an advocate from the business community who galvanised and led support around my 2011 report, “A Metro for Wales Capital City Region – Connecting Cardiff Newport and The Valleys[i].” The resulting widespread interest stimulated further discussion of the importance or otherwise of city regions, connectivity and new approaches to economic development. This led to my Welsh Government commissioned Metro Impact Study in 2013[ii] and then two years until January 2016, leading the development of the Metro programme for Welsh Government.

There are plenty of details set out in Welsh Government’s, “Rolling out our Metro” and on its website[iii], but in summary, the South Wales Metro is the beginning of a fundamental upgrade of the public transport network in South East Wales. This work will initially focus on the valley lines, which will be transformed in the next phase of work and result in faster, more frequent services across the network and enable new stations and network extension.

We are just about to embark on the delivery of perhaps the most transformational public transport project anywhere in the UK. It’s not as big as Crossrail in financial terms but the impact the economy of south east Wales will, I suspect, be proportionally far bigger.

In ten years’ time, people from across the UK will be asking, “How did they do that, it’s amazing, Wales is really going places…” This really is a game changer.

The challenge for us all is how we use Metro to redefine south east Wales and create a new sense of place. This must be broad and include consideration of art, culture, heritage and environment as well as economy and governance. It must also engage with a broad community to ensure legitimacy.


In the first instance we need sort out our regional governance. The argument has been in play since Prof Marquand, in his 1936 book, “South Wales needs a Plan”, said,

“… a more rapid movement of population up and down the valleys must be encouraged, so as to save the inhabitants of the northern towns from economic isolation. How that rapidity of movement can best be secured should be decided by an authority responsible for a co-ordinated transport service throughout the Region. No such authority exists”.

…” political and social institutions have failed to adopt themselves with sufficient rapidity to the economic changes that have taken place. One small symptom of this is the maintenance of local government boundaries which have long lost their significance and of authorities which are inadequate to the larger tasks which need to be undertaken.”

Since then many others have covered the same ground. So I am just going to say it. We need a statutory regional framework to plan, develop and deliver transport, land use and economic development. The regional “Strategic Development Plan” anticipated in the Wales planning bill and the “Regional Transport Authority” hinted at in the recent City Deal, provides an opportunity to address this 80-year-old problem. If we don’t do this now, we never will.

Economic Development and Regeneration…

Quite rightly there is still some debate re: the potential impact of the Metro and how we might deliver benefits across the entire region, but also some straw man arguments. I have always been clear that Metro developed as purely a transport project or focussed just on Cardiff would sell us short and those characterising it as such are being a little disingenuous.

In purely transport terms the Metro project works – it couldn’t proceed unless it has a compelling business case developed using standard UK Treasury guidelines. Whilst there is still some debate, I would point to a growing body of data that identifies many wider regional and agglomerative economic benefits that can occur. Not limited to, but includes, many from this list put together by “Transport works” on www.transportworks.org/evidence-base. My 2013 Metro Impact Study also sourced a range of earlier studies, including “The Economic Impact of Light Rail” in 2004 [iv], but there are many more; the 2004, ”Spatial Determinants of Productivity: Analysis for the Regions of Great Britain”,[v] is another good example. Just recently, the Centre for Cities, “Building The Northern Powerhouse[vi]”, identified that connectivity within city regions is perhaps more important that connectivity between city regions. This echoes the work of Eddington in 2006[vii]. Importantly, the 2013 Metro Impact study also explored a range of local economic and regeneration interventions right across south east Wales to complement the transport project.

Within that context we need a more nuanced approach to economic development. This needs to reflect commercial realities and the need for more, higher paid jobs across the region, especially in Cardiff which is best placed to attract and support such employment. We also need to intervene to ensure place like Pontypridd, Newport, Merthyr, Caerphilly, Bridged, Barry, etc can support more regional employment (some of which is currently in Cardiff). Perhaps more challenging we need to consider what “economic and regeneration” interventions are required in many of our smaller towns and communities, many of which have suffered years of decline, to ensure benefits can be felt and enjoyed by as many people as possible. If this includes interventions that encourage more local and “foundational” economic activities as others have suggested, then let’s do it. However, if such better connected communities, also attract more commuter based residents (with disposable income to spend locally) and associated development then that also has to be part of the mix. It’s not either, or – it’s do what works.

I’d like to present an assertive example.  Many people in Cardiff today without a car would not realistically consider working in Pontypridd – the journey is just too problematic. With only two rail services an hour from the HoV, access from Merthyr, Aberdare and Treherbert is only marginally better. But Pontypridd is at the physical centre of the region and only ten miles from Cardiff!

There are too few stations across Cardiff that combined with limited bus integration, make access to Pontypridd difficult for many people in the city; imagine living in St Mellons, Llanrumney or Ely without a car – just commuting to the centre of Cardiff at peak times is enough of challenge. This restricts Pontypridd’s ability to support employment as most of Cardiff’s 350,000 population cannot easily get there at peak times.

However, with grade A rentals rising in Cardiff city centre, some businesses will inevitably look at lower cost floor space in locations with a good catchment of people with the appropriate skills/experience…but where?

A “Lighter Rail” type network offering faster and more frequent services to Pontypridd from not just Cardiff but Merthyr, Treherbert and Aberdare, additional stations in Cardiff (and so better regional accessibility for 000s more people) integrated with bus services across the city and region, could enable far more people to get to Pontypridd on a reasonable commute (e.g. from say Gabalfa, Penylan or St Mellons in Cardiff as well as Merthyr, Treherbert, Aberdare, Bargoed and Blackwood) than is possible today. In such a scenario, one could imagine Pontypridd attracting and supporting more employment (and so stimulate secondary activities) and play a more important role in the regional economy. This enhanced regional connectivity will also allow Cardiff to focus on the more productive jobs the region needs and enable the rest of the region and especially places like Pontypridd, Merthyr, Bridgend, Caerphilly and Newport to support some of the employment that is currently located in Cardiff. Metro is not, as some claim, all about getting to Cardiff, it is about the entire region and how we recast its economy based on the enhanced connectivity Metro delivers.

Sense of Place…

What does all this mean to someone in Grangetown Vs Nelson Vs Brynmawr? In articulating a response and providing this “meaning”, we need to go beyond the “harder” economic and regenerative benefits and have a “conversation” that relates to our communities, arts, culture, green infrastructure history and heritage. Worth reading David Llewellyn’s recent article for the IWA[viii] illustrating the potential environmental, tourism and heritage benefits of Metro.

This should take place across the region in our schools, colleges, pubs, cafes, shops and involve a wide range of community groups and not be left purely in the hands of governments official, politicians and business groups.

This “conversation” has to be forward looking and confident and one that reflects our shared industrial and geographic heritage. Merthyr and Cardiff are inextricably linked across time and place. They are also both part of a new bigger place that can only work if it augments the deep rooted allegiances many of us have, especially across the valleys, to our town or local community.

There is an opportunity that could help us frame all these wider discussions and interventions. While the potential for Cardiff to be the 2023 EU Capital of Culture has gone, the city deal and the opportunity to engage the region’s wider creative community is still there. This would not be about new buildings or corporate operatic culture, but an opportunity to include arts and community groups from across the whole region. Each Metro station provides a canvas for a discussion about their role in the wider region and a debate about our region’s aspirations for its future.

Keeping an Eye on the Future…

Whilst we struggle to address decades old issues we cannot ignore the future or global trends that could have a profound impact on how we live. It is possible or even likely that the age of the personal car is already in decline to be replaced by a new “mobilities” paradigm where autonomous vehicles provide a utility service as part of the wider public transport mix. Artificial intelligence may, as some are predicting, eat into middle class incomes and stimulate a response across society and our economy that places more “value” on more “human” activities – arts, culture, music, study, etc. That climate change and sustainability move from topics of lip service interest to many organisations, to being at the core of how we live as anticipated in the Well Being of Future Generations Bill. If we can reflect such considerations and scenarios in our thinking, then we can really create something special in Wales. Metro could be a catalyst to accelerate progress.

Reasons to be optimistic…

None of this will happen by itself and needs a proactive lead from the regions local authorities to support the core WG Metro project; it also needs wider civic society to be more vocal about the kind of place we want to live in. In doing so I think the role of Cardiff University (and the other HE institutions across the region) could also be pivotal in brokering the necessary and often difficult discussions required across government, local authorities, the business community and civil society.

I am optimistic we can, in fact we don’t have a choice and we must.

Mark Barry is Professor of Practice in Connectivity at Cardiff University’s School of Geography and Planning. Mark also has his own consulting business M&G Barry Consulting. He led Metro Development for Welsh Government from December 2013 to January 2016 following the publication of his Metro Impact Study in 2013.

Please note: This article, published in July 2016 by the Bevan Foundation, is based entirely on the views of Prof Mark Barry based on his knowledge and material already in the public domain and does not represent in any way the views, thoughts, intentions, plans, policies or strategies of Welsh Government, Transport for Wales, Cardiff University or any other organisation.


[i]           M Barry, 2011, “A Metro for Wales’ Capital City Region, Connecting Cardiff Newport & The Valleys”, Cardiff Business Partnership & The institute of Welsh Affairs http://www.iwa.org.uk/en/publications/view/204

[ii]          M Barry & Metro Consortium, October 2013, “Metro Impact Study” commissioned by The Minister for Economy Science and Transport in April 2013, http://wales.gov.uk/topics/transport/public/metro/?lang=en

[iii]         Welsh Government, November 2015, “Rolling out our Metro” http://gov.wales/topics/transport/public/metro/?lang=en

[iv]        Hass-Klau, Crampton, Benjari 2004 “Economic Impact of Light Rail”; Environmental and Transport Planning

[v]          Rice and Venable, 2004, Spatial Determinants of Productivity: Analysis for the Regions of Great Britain http://www.transportworks.org/sites/default/files/assets/evidence_base_documents/Spatial%20Determinants%20of%20Productivity.pdf

[vi]          P Swinney, June 2016, “Building The Northern Powerhouse”, Centre for Cities


[vii]       Eddington, 2006, “Eddington Transport Study”, UK Chancellor of The Exchequer and The Secretary of State for Transport

[viii]         David Llewellyn, 2016, “Enhancing the economic and environmental benefits of a Metro”, IWA http://www.clickonwales.org/2016/06/enhancing-the-economic-and-environmental-benefits-of-a-metro/

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