Monday, 12 December 2011

Getting the regional economy back on track...

I wrote recently of the sad decline of Cardiff Airport. While there may be cause for optimism in the event that new and viable international routes are established, especially to the Americas, I also indicated that if we are aiming to attract visitors and business representatives from around the world, then we really should have a regional transportation system that matches our ambition.

Rapid, integrated and efficient transit systems are the arteries through which the lifeblood of modern, dynamic economies flows. Between 1998 and 2008, 40% of all private sector employment growth for the whole of Wales was in Cardiff and 100,000 people travel into the city and to Newport from within a 20 mile (32km) radius every day. Cardiff has transformed within a relatively short time to become a vibrant base for commerce, sport, history and culture, higher education and politics. The surrounding Vale of Glamorgan and coastal region are great for natural beauty and outdoor activities. Yet for a modern economy to take full advantage of these qualities, and in turn benefit smaller communities and the Valleys, a revolution in local transportation infrastructure is needed. In January 2011, the Cardiff Business Partnership, in partnership with the Institute of Welsh Affairs, published a report calling for a Metro system for the Capital City Region, encompassing Newport to the East, Bridgend to the West and Valley’s communities such as Merthyr and Ebbw Vale to the North. The full report can be viewed here .

Cardiff’s ability to act as a driver for the regional economy is highlighted by the planned £60m+ Central Business District. A modern transit system as envisioned by the report – including an enhanced and electrified heavy rail system, complemented by a new Light Rail/Tram and Bus rapid transit network - would be necessary to take full advantage of Cardiff’s economic potential and encourage investors that long-term growth prospects were positive. After all, many major cities outside London operate and benefit from integrated transit systems with a heavy reliance on tramways/light rail. These include Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham and Blackpool. Expansion is underway in Manchester to treble its size and a brand new 8.5-mile network is due to begin operating in Edinburgh in 2012. A similar system in Cardiff and the region would elevate it into the top-tier of UK cities.

The potential cost of such a scheme is, of course, an issue worthy of the highest scrutiny; as well it should be. The total costs for the establishment of a Cardiff metro system are estimated to reach between £2-2.5 billion over a 10-year period, which would equate to around £300 million a year. However, the economic benefits in the long-term would more than outweigh the short-term spending commitments. It would be a capital investment, and that is the key word: investment. By building for the future we would guarantee the region’s competitiveness, not only against other areas around the UK, but across Europe too. As part of the Single Market we cannot underestimate the challenges posed by other regions, especially in Eastern Europe, as they attempt to attract business their way. Besides, subsidies for Arriva Trains Wales and the North-South air-link alone total £171.2 million per year which could be put to far better use and, while it is no small figure, £2.5 billion is low in comparison to other rail-based infrastructure investments around the UK, such as Crossrail (£16 billion) and HS2 (£32 billion). Even Edinburgh’s new tramway is expected to cost £776 million for an 8.5 mile route.

Not only is Cardiff our capital, it is one of Europe’s fastest growing cities. Once a positive tipping point is reached in a city and a region’s development, then expectations by outsiders need to correspond with the reality. For us to remain with the rail links we have which, at their worst, can be dirty and overcrowded, with services not as frequent as they should be and poor links to our nearest airport, would be unacceptable for the long-term. We are moving ever further into the Twenty-First Century, not the Twentieth.

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