Q & A with Phil Bale, leader of Cardiff Council
Phil Bale is leader of Cardiff Council and is currently guiding the city as it links with neighbouring boroughs to bid for a City Deal. He talks to New Start about super-regions, timebanking and building Cardiff’s social economy.
Q. Negotiations are taking place for City Deal funding for the emerging Cardiff capital region. What will the deal mean for the region?
A. Yes, I’m representing the city I was born in at a really exciting time. We are the fastest growing city in Wales and we are making big decisions in terms of planning the future of Cardiff and aligning that with the wider city region in a way that hasn’t happened in the past. I have good relations with other local authorities and we are working together on a city region agenda with the Welsh government. The focal point around a City Deal has really galvanised minds and energy.
‘There is a history of strong social movements in south Wales
and it’s important to do all we can to get the best possible outcomes’
One of first things I was keen to do when I became leader was to re-connect Cardiff with the rest of the UK’s city agenda. We need to use the benefits of devolution to Wales for our own advantage and in a UK context. The Wales Act will give fiscal and borrowing powers to Welsh government and allow us to do things that cities in rest of UK are still negotiating.
Q. The Cardiff capital region includes the south Wales valleys, which have some of the highest levels of poverty in the UK.
A. What is it about our region that has such potential, that has the legacy of industry but which is the only part of the UK that in the 1930s was designated an assisted area and is still there today? We recognise that there are real socio-economic challenges in our region and also in our city. We have some of the biggest gaps in terms of life expectancy and opportunity for people within Cardiff and in the wider region. One of things that drives me is that I don’t want Cardiff’s growth to leave people behind. I want Cardiff and the wider region to grow together.
The City Deal process enables us to take a city region view. Projects in the past may have been driven by strong business or political lobbying, but looking at a whole city region allows a much more balanced view in terms of projects that contribute to the economy and also wider projects around health for example.
Q. How will you ensure that the City Deal reaches into the poorer areas of the capital and the region?
A. The outline we submitted for the City Deal included an infrastructure fund for transport projects and for the business community and also to grow the social economy in Wales and the Cardiff region. There is also a strong ‘into work’ agenda included too. There are opportunities to look at programmes here that take resources from Welsh government as well as the UK government and pool them at a regional level in a way that we haven’t been able to do before. That investment may not take place in Cardiff but may be outside of the city. We are big and mature enough as a city to recognise the collective opportunity of connecting the wider region to address some of those longstanding issues.
I’ve spoken to the Wales Co-operative Centre to ask if they could provide input into the City Deal process to give us an idea of other projects that may have greater social benefit.
We have also recently formed the Great Western Cities Partnership – with Newport and Bristol – to highlight the scale of the broader western offer in the UK. I’m excited by the opportunities of a city region. If you look at some of the most successful regions – and super regions – they are highlighting their scale and impact. Over summer I spent a week in the Oresund region linking Copenhagen and Malmo. We have to do all we can as a capital region to raise our profile internationally for export and inward investment.
Q. The City Deal calls for projects that uplift GVA. What’s your view on the focus of GVA as a measurement of local wealth?
A. Everyone has their different views about how you measure economic activity and success. The City Deal is based around GVA uplift and we have to be mindful that, while there are different ways to measure, we have to get a balance. The social economy will be a part of the City Deal. There is a history of a strong social movements in south Wales and it’s important to do all we can to get the best possible outcomes. We have a great legacy in Wales of community organisations: the Miners’ Institutes were raised with contributions from local people and the libraries built for community benefit. We need to be able to capture that social benefit in the investment we make in infrastructure and in jobs and skills training. We need to do that so we don’t leave people behind. We can set criteria to ensure we monitor the spread of economic wealth and opportunity across the city region.
Q. How resilient is the economic model in Cardiff?
A. We are making strides in moving our economy away from its industrial past towards a new economic model. This can be seen in the investment in sectors such as life sciences and financial services in Cardiff. We have an enterprise zone in the city centre supporting the financial services sector. The fact we are growing fast as a city is an opportunity for us. The question is: how we can grow sustainably in the future so we can build on that momentum? We have a vision of becoming Europe’s most liveable city to ensure we retain and attract talent. The development of Central Square has been led by the city council and local partners and that will see the development of a new public realm and office space, a new headquarters for BBC Wales and a new bus interchange. I was keen for projects that not only regenerate the city centre but also push the boundaries in terms of quality design, so we have Norman Foster and partners involved in that project.
‘We want a creative capital and to build
on the energy and creativity of our people’
Q. Many places have updated their city centres and attracted middle class jobs but the wealth has not trickled down to the poorer areas. What strategies do you have for this?
A. It’s a mixture of different strategies and the one we are focusing on in Cardiff is around time banking. We want to become a time banking capital and have recently rolled out the Cardiff Time Credits programme, the world’s first city-wide community currency, building on the work that took place at Action in Caerau and Ely (ACE). It brings together a range of charities, small businesses and grassroots organisations and we believe it will help encourage greater capacity building and volunteering within the city to support some of the difficult challenges we face and encourage greater collective community self-help. We are also looking at local currencies but time banking is something we have a proven record on and which we can scale up across the rest of the city.
Q. There’s a sense within the Cardiff region and across Wales of over-dependency on government, for grants and for support. How do you plan to tackle that?
A. Grants and that funding model aren’t sustainable. A canvas is there and change will come through in time. We have set up a Spacehive platform for crowdfunding projects and there have been a lot of pop-ups in the city. Abacus is a great example of the council giving up a building and allowing groups to do things that a council or corporate body would never be able to do. That is the council pulling back and giving space to other organisations to fill and to create things that aren’t controlled form the centre. We want a creative capital and to build on the energy and creativity of our people.
Clare Goff is Editor at New Start magazine