Yes, I am still, frequently, asked the question by uncomprehending friends “why do you live in Cardiff?”. As a south Londoner (political history here), I migrated here via the very beautiful countryside of north Warwickshire.
My work as a consultant took me from the heart of England all over the UK, quite a bit of Europe and even North America. But I had a client in Cardiff that meant five years of staying almost every week at the Holiday Inn (now the Ramada); stays that included the delight of Michael Jackson’s suite. An artificial kind of “getting to know you Cardiff” maybe, but it planted a seed that led to me renting a flat for six months to work on a book.
Then, much later, the suggestion to my partner that we try a year in a rented flat in Llandaff to see if we really liked Cardiff. A year after when we were being kicked out we had to decide: to relocate permanently or return to leafy Warwickshire. The decision was taken out of our hands when the house there sold and, on the same day we found a home in Pontcanna, we bought it. We didn’t know then that this was one of the most desirable parts of the city, and that we were surrounded by Welsh speakers and media personalities. As time went on, we met with like-minded immigrants, as well as delightful neighbours who had been in the area for 40 or 50 years. We tried, repeatedly, to improve our Welsh.
It took a while to get to know the extraordinary delights of the adjoining Pontcanna and Llandaff Fields
and the way they form part of the Bute Parks. The arrival of Dryw – black, four legged and a terrier explorer – accelerated our learning. However, we quickly discovered that many of the things we most liked about Cardiff were under threat. First it was Sophia Gardens – the city’s first public park – and the idea of giving a privately owned company a huge amount of public space in which to develop a commercial cricket ground.
The “Hit it for Six” campaign successfully fought off two major applications for development in this grade 2* parkland, but the promise of a “test match” and of some fleeting international exposure saw the council roll over like lapdogs and agree to the desecration of the park. An action that can never be reversed.
It became clear, sadly, that this was part of an ongoing process of degradation and development, usually claimed to be for “worthy causes”.
Each of these individual uses may have seemed to have some merit, but taken together they have added up to a 40% removal of public space from one of the country’s most important historic landmarks. Sophia Gardens was effectively finally lost when the cricket stadium was built, but we all thought Bute Park itself was untouchable. The allure of money from the Heritage Lottery Fund and weaselly words of support from them, enabled the council to build a new access road to enable it to undertake public events more easily. A 5000 people petition asking for a moratorium on development in the Bute Parks was dismissed in a council meeting in seconds.
At this point anyone would question why they would still want to live here. Now, there is as much to get angry about in Cardiff, as there is to enjoy. As chair of Cardiff Civic Society, a charity not a political or single-issue campaign, I have a responsibility, not to be angry (well, not just angry) but to try to ensure that Cardiff’s historic past, and just as importantly, its future, is in the ownership of its citizens. Not, as so often seems, taken for granted by its politicians as their right to propose and dispose of at will.
We are coming up to an important time for those who make bad decisions: it’s the Welsh Assembly elections next year, council elections in 2012. It’s a good time to reflect on what has happened, and what we might want for the city in twenty years’ time.
Cardiff has the potential to be a fitting capital for the country where many of us still want to live. Indeed, it can and should be a world exemplar of many of Wales’ policies for the environment, sustainable economic growth, high standards of built design and caring for a remarkable and complex history.
It won’t be that in 2020 unless we, the people who have grown to love the place, make it so.
Peter sits on an access bollard by the new Bute Parks access road bridge: “its presence allows the noise, traffic and pollution of an arterial roadway into what was once one of the most preciously tranquil areas of the heritage park. The massive, industrial strength bridge (for 40 tonne lorries) has the design footprint of a monster and less subtlety than the second Severn crossing. It destroys something given in trust. It’s an irrevocable act of vandalism that history will join those who campaigned against it and roundly condemn as a folly of 21st century politicians seeking civic aggrandisement above civic duty.”