Why we live in Cardiff: guest blog

This Guest Blog was requested by WeAreCardiff and appeared on their blog on August 27th 2010

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.

Llandaff, one of Cardiff's many 'villages'

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

Llandaff Fields in Autumn

Llandaff Fields in Autumn

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.

Sophia Gardens in its glory days

Sophia Gardens in its glory days

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”.

40 years of encroachment of the Bute Parks

40 years of encroachment of the Bute Parks

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.

Picture by Adam Chard taken for WeAreCardiff

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.”

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Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama plans – now that’s more like it!

The heritage, listed Bute Parks are being subjected to pressures from all fronts: if it isn’t the big money lure of sporting events, it’s a local authority that thinks status and political short-termism is more important that what we leave for our children. One of the organisations that borders Bute Park itself is the RWCMD with a building of extreme ugliness albeit linking to a sensitive restoration of the stables that nestle into the edges of the Castle’s back door.

Now – Shock Horror! – they want to cover what little space there is on the site with more buildings and even – Horror on Horrors! – ask the Council for a bit of the Park to cover in concrete! And you know what? I’m all for it! I doubt that the governors and chief executive actually need my ringing endorsement to get their planning application through .. but hey, it’s great not be cheer leading the moaners and nimbies (as described in the past) for once.

Firstly: we were invited weeks ago to a very select presentation (their try out it turned out) at RWCMD to hear from the chief executive Hilary Boulding (the horse’s mouth, as it were) about the creation of the scheme and its impact. There was no hiding the effect the scheme would have. Nor of the necessity to acquire part of Bute Park (a scrubby bit of unused land of no value in the grand scheme of things for the Park).

Secondly: this is ambitious, both for the college and the city. We need it. Thirdly: it’s pretty damn good architecture – adding to the vistas you’ll see from the Park. Unremittingly modern (no Prince Charles pastiche, thank goodness). If anything, they need to raise the optimum amount of money so that finishes and public spaces can be even more adventurous. S

So there we have it: talk to people and explain (Eisteddfod passim, note). Be bold. Employ good architects and really know what you are doing, and don’t stint on the ambition (Glamorgan Cricket Club passim). Exciting, relevant and a potential asset for the future. What more do need. It’s on my “if I win the Lottery list”…. See the details

Subject/Title: Surrealism, casino dependency and urban regeneration

There has been precious little effective debate about the politics concerning Cardiff’s political dash for a test match. This month however, there’s a very perceptive comment piece in Planet Magazine In it John Lovering focuses on the City’s application for a Super Casino – actually heard yesterday – but astutely puts that in the same context as the development at Sophia Gardens.
He – accurately in my view – lays clear blame for the current passion for “culture led projects” on Russell  Goodway (he of the investigation that purportedly cost millions of pounds in legal bills) and his Chief Executive Byron Davies. BBC news story also Goodway – now heading the Chamber of Commerce can still be relied on – as in the GCCC case – to roll out rent-a-crowd-quotes. And Byron Davies is still there, with an exceptionally malleable leader in Rodney Berman.
Planet have very kindly posted the article so it can be read here in full.
I particularly warm to the statement:”Despite articulate local opposition the obedient Leader led city councillors by their underinformed noses to vote their approval, only one dissenting”. But we would, wouldn’t we?

FOOTNOTES Saturday 2 September:
John Lovering pops up at the hearing to question impact assessments of the Casino effect.
And the Daily Mail devotes its front page to the impact of casinos.