In August this year, Welsh Government (WG) published its National Development Framework[i] (NDF) for consultation (which is designed to complement and provide more spatial priorities for Planning Policy Wales PPW published in 2018[ii]). There is much to applaud – especially the emphasis on Transit Oriented Development (see Policy 1 – Sustainable Urban Growth) and the greater provision of affordable homes which has also seen the Minister make some announcements[iii] in response to the independent review earlier this year[iv].
However, I would like to offer some observations and suggestions (that are subject to change) , both generally and in respect of South East Wales (or the Cardiff Capital Region)… and I fully expect some planners and economist to challenge this robustly!
Economic Development in South East Wales
My first assertion, economic development/growth is not homogenous – part of our problem in framing policy in Wales (or even the UK) is that it leans too much toward that false premise.
The kind of economic activities that can be supported and their location, is influenced by many factors – two of the most important are the size of the employment catchment and the skills/experience of that catchment. In the valleys, it was also due to availability of natural resources, which are now depleted.
In South East Wales it is clear that Cardiff has the largest catchment and best access to skills/experience. That’s just an economic feature of being bigger and more densely populated. That’s why over a third (255,000 out of 700,000) of all the jobs in SE Wales are in Cardiff.
A challenge for us in SE Wales is that we have a population distribution resulting from a 19th Century and early/mid 20th Century economy based on the exploitation of natural resources. We also need to address the depletion of our local economies which have been impacted by massive changes in high street retail (supermarkets, out of town and internet shopping) over the last 50 years.
We need a very different model that reflects this demographic and economic legacy.
It is also true (again my assertion) that generally, as the economic value (which often correlates to wages) of employment goes up, the availability of employees with the requisite skills to undertake such work becomes more scarce (and so requires a larger catchment labour market). In any labour market there is larger supply of resource able to undertake lower value employment where there will be more people with the requisite skills and experience; which means, all other things being equal, the geographic catchment for the labour increases with the value of that work.
Increasing connectivity to increase the net effective density of a “place” will influence both the above – which we should view as a continuum (although I think there are “quantum” particulate effects!)
Today I would argue that SE Wales and Cardiff is characterised by
- Low overall GVA/capita – even in Cardiff, whose GVA/Capita has fallen over the last ten years (meaning the average pay of those jobs is lower than UK average)
- Areas with real problems of economic inactivity going back decades – this is true of most local authorities in the region, including Cardiff which has more LSOA in the WIMD than any other local authority. This is why the Cardiff Vs Anywhere else narrative is not helpful.
- Generally poor public transport connectivity apart from some key corridors into Cardiff
What Metro offers is the potential to more effectively differentiate our economic development strategy (it’s not “either/or”, Cardiff Vs Newport or Cardiff Vs Valleys or even agglomeration economics Vs foundational economics)
Given the potential to increase the labour market catchment (and create more efficient labour markets) of Cardiff and yes Pontypridd, Newport, Merthyr, Barry, etc Metro presents an opportunities to develop a more sophisticated economic development strategy for the region and all of its key settlements.
I would argue, that yes, more functions and economic activities can be encouraged and supported in places like Newport and Pontypridd (given more people should be able to access those location more easily in future) but that does not mean no more development in Cardiff. Instead it means that Cardiff can focus on the functions that it is best placed to support, that will likely mean higher value activities that require access to more scarce employment resources that can now more easily be secured from across the region.
Urban and Cross Valley Connectivity
Given the importance of connectivity to all types of economic development, the NDF should also in my view reflect the need to enhance connectivity in SE Wales. The next phase of Metro to 2023/4 does much (e.g. Pontypridd-Cardiff services of 12 tph), but it still leaves some areas well short of effective connectivity. For example cross-valley connectivity (which will be essential to support more economic activity in Pontypridd) and intra urban connectivity in both Cardiff and Newport will all still be sub-optimal when the next phase of Metro is complete in 2023. Some of these were covered in “Metro and Me” in 2018. [vii]
So, more needs to be done in all cases. For Cardiff and as implied in the written statement[viii] accompanying the publication of “A Railway for Future Generations[ix]” on Sep 24th, urban area metro service frequencies should be at least 4tph. Both the City and Coryton Lines in Cardiff are still specified at 2tph (as well as Ebbw Vale and Maesteg line services). Hence, Cardiff Council’s ambitions to progress a Cardiff Crossrail and Cardiff Circle[x]. Similarly, in Newport, which is very poorly served by PT (with only one station offering 4tph of more) there needs to be a recognition that spatial planning and economic development is dependent on more investment in the city’s transport network some of which I set out in my “what do we do instead of the M4” blog[xi].
The graphic on P63 of the NDF should perhaps reflect these requirements?
Similarly, I think we need to encourage more “densification of development” as set out in NDF Policy 1. A per my article on Transit Oriented Development in the Cardiff Capital Region[xii], the UK (Cardiff included) is actually low density when compared to most European cities.
We can and should, accommodate more mid-rise development in our towns and cities; and if we are to develop greenfield sites – like Plas Dwr perhaps – they absolutely need to be integrated with Metro and with plans revised to ensure sufficient development density around the transport corridor so they both support each other.
I think the policy under Cardiff should reflect this…as it should in Newport, Merthyr, Pontypridd, Barry and Bridgend. This does not mean 25 story “build to sell” schemes, but more mid-rise (6-10 story) mixed use and mixed tenure schemes in all our urban areas. We can minimise greenfield encroachment if we do this.
I also think we could and should be more definitive re: transport and mode share in the NDF. We do need to reduce car use and the current state of affairs where over 80% of commuter journeys in Wales are car based with only 8% using Public Transport (PT) and 10% Active Travel (AT). I think we need to get back to a 1950s share of significantly less than 50% of people commuting in cars, which means we need to quadruple the current ~8% PT mode share to 30~40% and increase AT to at least 20%.
This implicitly, has land use and transport planning impacts, which I think should be reflected somewhere in the NDF. Specifically for the South Wales Metro, plans for the next phase, which will see a doubling of capacity, should be followed very quickly with a another doubling of capacity, as well as early action to address those network constraints that limit the number and frequency of services that can be operated (so Ebbw Valley, Marches, VoG, City, Coryton) as well as new lines and extensions.
What Economic Growth?
I am not ignoring the elephant in the room here. So we also have to address the “growth question” given our climate change emergency. I am not black and white on this (as many others are), there is still too much rhetoric and not enough light.
I absolutely agree we need to change how our economy functions, that we are over reliant on consumerism and too often replenishment of products we don’t need, that we need better controls and limits on our market economy and that we need to broaden our metrics to be less dependent on GVA/GDP in determining well-being. But in so doing, I don’t agree the “market economy is dead” or that comprehensive public ownership is a panacea (evidence suggests otherwise). We need room and time (although not too long) to reflect and consider how we might develop and embrace more sustainable economic activities, services and products and use fiscal measure to discourage those that are not.
This certainly means exploring and pursuing more measures to support local economies (foundational and circular – and not I am not an expert in this space) – local food, tourism, local procurement (where required services can be source locally), etc. I have written a little about climate change and the economy in a number of articles in the last few years. For example
It also means more and better public transport options and densification of development.
Overall, I welcome the NDF, but think it can be enhanced.