Monday 30 April 2012

City regions: Quangopolis?

With less than a week to go before the county council elections, the chief executive of Carmarthenshire, Mark James, has given the South Wales Evening Post his views on why Carmarthenshire should become part of a city region embracing Swansea, Port Talbot and Llanelli. The article can be found here, and there can be no doubt that he is very much in favour of it, as he promises both jobs and cash.

It is probably fair to say that most people in Carmarthenshire will not have come across the concept of city regions before, and so it is worth spending a little time exploring what it means.

In the UK, the idea goes back to Tony Blair's initiative to set up regional assemblies in England. This initiative fell at the first hurdle in 2004 when voters in the North East of England rejected the Government's proposals in a referendum, with attention then shifting to the creation of large regional city "hubs" to promote a framework for transport, planning, skills training and economic development which cut across local authority boundaries.

The Blair Government went on to create a legal framework to make this kind of collaboration possible, and in 2009 it was announced that Greater Manchester and Leeds would be the first city regions to be given the new powers. The Tory-LibDem coalition which took power in 2010 overturned the idea, although it did allow the creation of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in 2011. Responsibility for economic development and regional planning was handed to Local Enterprise Partnerships.

In Wales, however, the Government is looking at the matter again, and Edwina Hart, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Technology, launched a consultation back in March (here).

The consultation was not exactly well publicised, and it does not appear on the Welsh Government's official list of public consultations, but it has nevertheless attracted responses from bodies such as the WLGA, the quango which represents Welsh councils, and various academics. Whatever else this exercise is, it is hard to see it as in any way rooted in local democracy.

"So what?" might be the reaction of many people in Carmarthenshire. It all sounds a little remote and technical, but there are determined efforts to breathe life into the concept of a Swansea Bay City Region, as we can see from another South Wales Evening Post article here.

The article names no fewer than 5 Labour MPs who are all in favour, but none from any other party. Only one of them, Nia Griffiths, actually represents a Carmarthenshire constituency, but the scope of their ambition is clear from comments made by Dr Hywel Francis, Labour MP for Aberavon, who thinks that "Swansea Bay City" would cut across 6 separate local authorities, including "Dyfed", which older readers may remember included Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion as well as Carmarthenshire.

Certainly, there is a debate to be had here, and there may well be merits in the arguments put forward by the Swansea Bay City lobby, but so far discussion seems to be restricted to Labour MPs (why no AMs?), and a minibus load of unelected academics and council chief executives. How many of the academics appointed to Edwina's consultative panel have links with the Labour Party is another pertinent question.

Most people would probably agree that Welsh local government is in need of serious reform and that we have far too many local authorities. The current Labour Government in Cardiff made it clear from the outset that it would not be embarking on a root and branch reform, but would instead encourage cross-border partnerships in education, waste management and social care. The City Region idea shows all the signs of being another exercise in tinkering at the margins and transferring more local government functions to quangos.

There is an alternative vision to this eastward-looking view of South West Wales, and that was set out by Adam Price in his programme to mark the 50th anniversary of Saunders Lewis's famous broadcast on the fate of the Welsh language.

Adam advocated new local government structures for the whole of West Wales, from Carmarthenshire in the south to Gwynedd in the north. He pointed out that these parts of Wales have more than attachment to the Welsh language in common, and certainly there are swathes of Carmarthenshire which have much stronger economic, cultural and geographical ties with Ceredigion and North Pembrokeshire than ever they do with Port Talbot or Swansea.

But back to the local government elections. Despite being a Labour Party project, the idea of city regions does not make it into Labour's manifesto for Carmarthenshire, and it is not mentioned in Plaid's manifesto either. Since the Independents don't bother with a manifesto, there is no point asking what their view is.

The chief executive's intervention is also remarkable, bearing in mind that just two weeks ago he told the BBC that he could not comment on a report about the Towy Community Church because of the elections. After all, the City Region idea would have much more profound and lasting consequences for the county.

Whatever the results of the council elections this week, there will be no mandate for anyone to pursue the Swansea Bay City idea, but no doubt the academics, the quangos and the chief executives will continue to push it.

What we have, then, is two radically different views of where we belong, and it is relevant to see the county's proposed Local Development Plan, with its allocations of huge housing developments, as part of the Swansea Bay City vision. If we go down this path, Carmarthenshire would turn east and become a kind of development zone wrapped around the older urban and industrial centres.

Both the Local Development Plan and the City Region concept go to the heart of how we see ourselves and what kind of future we want for our communities.

Let's not leave it to the academics, chief executives and quangos to decide.


Cibwr said...

A city region covering Carmarthenshire would cut across the regional consortium that the Welsh Government have created. This would probably make the proposed Mid and West Wales consortia unviable.

I would agree that there is a need for some reoganisation of local government - but I would commend my suggestion on democratising a layer of government that we have and the transfer of some functions from the existing councils to new regional authorities - directly elected by STV.

For the curious my suggestions are here.

Jac o' the North, said...

This idea has been knocking around for about 20 years. When it started the movers and shakers in Cardiff were even using the term 'city state'.

Because at the end of the day it's a way of justifying all the jobs in Cardiff with the Valleys becoming one vast dormitory / commuter area. Realising that people in Swansea weren't going to buy into this scam we have in more recent times heard of the 'Swansea City Region'.

Which is less ambitious but, in many ways, more realistic than the Cardiff model. Because Llanelli, Swansea, Neath, Port Talbot and the smaller communities that link them, or run up the valleys behind them, do form a contiguous urban / industrial area, perhaps the only genuine conurbation in Wales.

Which takes us to the point you raise about "swathes of Carmarthenshire which have much stronger economic, cultural and geographical ties with Ceredigion and North Pembrokeshire than ever they do with Port Talbot or Swansea", or, it could be argued, with Llanelli, which probably has more in common with Neath than with rural Carmarthenshire.

Obviously Turks are not going to start supporting the Ospreys, but they do support the Swans, just like people in Neath and Port Talbot. And Loughor Bridge is hardly Checkpoint Charlie. In a sense, the Swansea City Region already exists; so it makes sense to recognise this fact.

Anonymous said...

How will we divide up Wales then?

Swansea Bay
Cardiff and Valleys
Y Fro Gymraeg
The March
Scouse Wales

Anonymous said...

Is it time to have another local government reorganisation ?
We have not wasted any money on one since 1994 .
Perhaps Mark James wants to earn more money as the Gauleiter of Greater Swansea
What are the Labour party thinking about - daft hair brained idea

Anonymous said...

This is nothing new; we have had the West Cheshire/North East Wales Sub Regional Strategy, the Mersey Dee Alliance and the Liverpool City Region proposals. All this is contained in WG's Wales Spatial Plan. What is missing wherever you look is outcomes, how have Welsh Local Authorities benefitted from being part of a City Region? Wrecsam hasn't unless you count the North East of Wales with concrete as a desirable outcome.

Anonymous said...

maybe mr james would like to purchase a one way ticket to bilbao if he feels that strongly about it ;-) (anon2)