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Britain’s western powerhouse?

Posted on April 26, 2016

The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ has caught the political imagination even if there is some debate about whether the financial resources to turn it into reality are really going to appear from the Treasury. The English devolution agendas post the Scottish referendum, and the desire to create poles of economic, cultural and political influence in England outside London are real enough. The Northern Powerhouse has been followed by the ‘Midlands Engine’ and now a third agglomeration, Great Western Cities (GWC). Great Western Cities is a combination of Cardiff, Newport and Bristol, the cities on the Severn Estuary. A new report (Metro Dynamics: Britain’s Western Powerhouse Feb 2016) commissioned by their council leaders (Mayor in the case of Bristol) sets out a case and an agenda. The case is a tricky one, and the report’s authors make quite an effort to avoid comparisons with the Northern Powerhouse. There are quite a few positives, most notably that Bristol is the only one of the UK’s 10 core cities with a GDP per capita above the UK average, (but this is not the case for the ‘region’ once Cardiff and Newport are factored in) and that GWC has a combined economic output of £58 bn, larger than any other conurbation in the UK outside London. The report argues that agglomeration, where cities and their hinterlands come together, is one of the most powerful factors that will drive city growth in the coming decades, thought this is arguably a statement of the bleedin’ obvious rather than a major new insight of economic geography. It also argues for the opportunities around a shared renewable energy resource, ie the tidal power of the Severn Estuary, combined with developing green industry specialisms in the three cities and the engineering traditions such as Bristol’s aerospace, which make for opportunities for graduate retention in engineering in the region. In pulling these positives together it makes great play of what it refers to as the ‘typology of powerhouses’; the importance of geographical proximity, population size, high levels of connectivity, collaboration, and the importance of a shared historical narrative.   Yes but….

While the Northern Powerhouse has a population of 16 million, GWC has a population of 1.8m; the high levels of connectivity are somewhat compromised by a pricey toll bridge over the Severn, and while the northern cities while undoubtedly having plenty of civic competitiveness nurtured over centuries, do at least share plenty of common industrial heritage from the time of the Industrial Revolution onwards. Can this really be said of Cardiff and Bristol? The report authors perhaps unsurprisingly, don’t see the comparisons as relevant. Instead they pray in aid the Oresund region in Scandinavia, which links Copenhagen in Denmark with Malmo in Sweden. A good example, but one that points up the lack of a ‘shared historical narrative’ between Bristol and its Welsh neighbours on the other side of the Severn, and even more pertinently raises all sorts of questions about the impact of devolution  in Wales on such a potential agglomeration. Everything from the extent to which Cardiff remains focussed on being capital of Wales or working in partnership with other welsh cities such as Swansea, to whether the powers of the Welsh Government, e.g. to vary air passenger duty could ‘diss’ the successful and expanding Bristol Airport in favour of Cardiff Airport.  Indeed Bristol Airport’s expansion into one of the most successful regional airports in the UK, points up just how one-way the connectivity arguments are. The report makes great play of the fact that that more people commute between Cardiff and Bristol than between Leeds and Manchester. But how many commute from Bristol to Cardiff? All in all there are some interesting ideas, and in terms of setting out a long term agenda it is certainly generating debate in the region – much of it sceptical – but beyond Mayor Ferguson (up for re-election in May) and the council leaders in Cardiff and Newport, is there a shared vision beyond the politicians, or some Ministerial sponsorship of the kind enjoyed by both the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine? At the moment the answers seems to be no, and the while both Cardiff and Newport City councils may look longingly across the Severn at Bristol’s success just 44 miles away, the Welsh Government probably has some rather different ideas.

This article first appeared in Town and Country Planning, March/April 2016