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.”

A personal view – looking forward to Cardiff 2020

This is a longer version of the article published by MyCardiff

Mermaid Quay

The Bay: Cardiff's attempt at a Barcelonaesque vibrant waterfront, with graceless, industrial estate architecture that is already dated, worn and well past its sell-by date.

He who rejects change is the architect of decay.  The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery. Harold Wilson, Prime Minister for a total of seven years and 279 days

The city is embarking – again, after an abortive start on Plan One – on the major exercise of deciding what it wants to be like in the future, stretching until 2026. And the “Local Development Plan” also has to explain how we are going to get there, no easy task. Mine’s easier: I have been asked for an opinion: “what would I like Cardiff to be like in 2020?”; I don’t have to be restricted by annoyances like projected population growth, a disintegrating environment, and the collapse of the market economy as we have known it. The future slate is clean, it can be what we want.

This kind of question usually predisposes that the future necessarily means change (bad) and that we don’t like – and should get rid of – what we’ve got.

On the first supposition, I am firmly of the Harold Wilson school of change: 40 years of working with organisations, managing change in its many disguises, has proven to me at least: change is inevitable, without it you die (institutionally, organisationally, physically – in the case of buildings and people).

What’s important is how you manage the change, whether you feel as an individual you have some control of the process. The most life-changing events can be managed, enjoyed, embraced, if one feels involved, a part of the event, not just a swept up bystander with others making the running. It follows then, that to welcome a new vision of our city, we must be an active part of that change, not let others – politicians, property developers, bankers – pursue their own agendas to their own benefit. For the reshaping of a city, we need its citizens to have the biggest, loudest, most effective voice.

When I ask people to name Cardiff’s great buildings the list is usually the same: the Stadium, the Millennium Centre, the ….. and the list runs out.

Well, for my money, I endorse every users’ perception of the Millennium Stadium as one of the finest in the world – as an experience. As a visual delight it fails: it’s in the wrong place, it can only be seen as the engineering feat that it undoubtably is from places few people go (try a boat on the river). It has absolutely no connection with its environment, its place. We can admire its existence, that doesn’t mean we have to pretend that it’s a great addition to the built landscape of the city. It is not.

And the Wales Millennium Centre fails to reach the highest goals of a landmark building for not dissimilar reasons. Compare and contrast it with a Stirling Prize short-listed building by Zahad Hadid the architect who was run out of town by vested interests, a rabid national newspaper (no names) and petty minded parochialism of the nastiest kind. The WMC is – like the Stadium – a huge success for what it does, not what it is. We are, like obedient pets, grateful for what we have. But as, presumably grown up sentient human beings, we have a right to be disappointed in what should have been.

As for the past: I have a developed aversion to bulldozers, perhaps it was living in Birmingham in the 60’s seeing a ring road carve the heart out of the city, or working in Plymouth and experiencing the – probably well-intentioned – razed city centre, flattened in a way Nazi bombers hadn’t completed and covered, with no doubt scarce resources but limited imagination, a post-war vision of concrete inhumanity and greyness. Cardiff has mostly escaped such wholesale slaughter of its heritage, though the city council continues to plunder the assets of its heritage parklands, school playing fields and public spaces.

Mostly it’s the industrial past that has gone. The dock lands have been barraged to make a  feeble, Barcelonesque imitation of a waterfront. Where there were industrial buildings we now have a sweeping motorway of urban road (with more traffic lights than any other road in the world I am certain) going from nowhere, to nowhere, and lined by some re-used buildings, but largely identikit housing of the worst kind.

The growth of Cardiff as a city is so recent that most of its heritage buildings are Victorian. Thankfully, organisations like the Victorian Society, have helped to ensure that this heritage has largely been kept intact. The Cathays Park civic buildings complex is something of which every person should be proud. Just remember that it, and the city’s other fine buildings and parks, were built from the profits generated by the labour of those in the coal field valleys. We need to consider how to best repay that debt: how much of the future of Cardiff 2020 should actually be in the city itself?

What of this past should we try to emulate in 2020 and beyond? I think this city is most successful when it is like a village: a core of public buildings and open spaces, shops, services, places to work and live. All within walking or cycling distance. I live in Pontcanna which has exactly that and more. Guess what, it’s desirable (for which read expensive). There are other places like it, and together they make Cardiff a set of connected villages around the core of the city. That’s what has happened, perhaps we should make more of it, more like it. The future means thinking about those areas of Cardiff that have been developed without thinking about some of these key essentials, or where we may be trying to remove them – taking away existing green spaces for schools for example. Everywhere, and everyone, has a right to the best built environment even if we failed to provide it in the first place.

Where necessary housing development takes place we should be ensuring that the developers meet the real social cost of their schemes. I don’t mean just a cheque for so-called “106” schemes. I mean properly designed developments to include public spaces, properly maintained, with viable transport in place, and public services. If that means building a school, health centre, bus stops, cycle paths and shops before the houses, so be it. For too long developers have reaped the benefit (profit) of the housing boom, largely at a direct cost to the wider community in providing (often badly as a result) the infrastructure for living that is needed.

We will certainly see fewer people in 2020 commuting to work: carbon reduction will necessitate this, the development of technology will facilitate it, profits will drive it. We all know cars will be used less, we just don’t like doing it. In Copenhagen 36% of traffic is bicycles, it’s a target figure that Cardiff could match, with a fitter population and a more pleasant place as bonuses.

And by 2020 much current building may well be at its replacement lifetime: the shocking housing developments we are now throwing up will have a short life span thankfully. We need better designed communities that are sensitive to the environment of a “One Planet, One Wales”, and meet the needs of real people. No more reduced size furniture to fit reduced size living spaces. Sixty years ago we built homes fit for heroes, now we should build homes fit for people.

Perhaps, and perhaps this is wishful thinking, we could be building a city that looks like the 21st century and not some pastiche of the past, or gerry-built identi-kit factory warehouse architecture that we seem to have excelled in recently. This would demand that we take as much concern about the aesthetics of the future of Cardiff as we try to take in conserving its past. Excellence is not necessarily more expensive. But it is the bedrock on which our forefathers built Cathays Park and if, in the future, we want our great great children to admire our efforts, this is one big lesson to learn from the past. Excellence is a word to be attached to few modern buildings in Cardiff today. We must do better.

So in the future much could be just the same: fine heritage buildings, magnificent heritage parks: a place where heritage lives. But only if w what e take robust steps now to ensure that happens. The pressures to destroy nearly always outweigh those to conserve.

To be more demanding we must be more involved, stop letting others decide. In an era where public disenchantment with ‘the powers that be’ is rife, where politicians think election is a ticket to power not responsibility, where consultation means being told will happen, it is difficult to be heard and feel that a voice has an impact.

I want Cardiff 2020 to be the best of what we have, and the very, very, very best of what we can have. We can have that, but only if we first have a voice extolling a vision of a future for its citizens and not vested interest.

Peter Cox moved his management consultancy business to Cardiff after emigrating here 15 years ago: it became a Wales Fast Growth 50 Company. He was a board member and trustee of Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre for seven years and its chair for two, putting in place its recent, £3.5M, RIBA award winning, refurbishment. He is now chair of Cardiff Civic Society which has recently prepared a response to the Cardiff Council plans for a new Local development Plan. He writes here in a personal capacity.

BBC to give Cardiff’s planning woes a very public airing

Ok, so planning’s not sexy. But it is important and I frequently bore on about it: lately the focus has been dodgy Cardiff Council planning decisions (again) and its Deposit Local Development Plan.

The BBC has taken on a big task to make these subjects fit for human consumption with a 30 minutes long Week in Week Out on Tuesday 23th March (10.35pm BBC One Wales only). Judging from the length of time it has been in preparation, and the care involved (a view based on the endless requests for documentary proof and evidence that have come my way daily for the past two months) I suspect it’ll be a pretty robust analysis.

I’ve had no preview, of course, but I can make some pretty shrewd guesses about the areas that are likely to cause acute embarrassment to Cardiff Council.  The program’s title “Starbucks and stadiums” gives a bit of a clue: might the programme question the city’s relentless drive for more city centre shopping “experiences”, mega-sports-stadiums, and high-rise flats for the (until the recession) upwardly mobile? And does it have a robust and delivable plan for Cardiff’s housing, employment, transport etc in the future?  If it addresses these issues, it will have plenty of ammunition: from politicians who decry the destruction of local communities like Butetown, to academics who question the wisdom of a continued growth thrust in these economically constrained and ecologically threatening times. The programme blurb asks the question: ”who’s benefitted from it all?”

Our council leadership argues that international sporting events are vital to the city’s economic well-being. They are prepared to sacrifice huge sums of taxpayers money and held-in-trust resources like its heritage parks, for kudos and at best, arguable economic benefit. The most recent example concerns Cardiff City Football Club: given land to enable it to build a new stadium, it blithely flogs it off to pay overdue VAT and national insurance. What possible public gain is that – taking ratepayers money to give to HMCR to bail out poor management? It’s a very poor way of developing long-term employment except for a few rich footballers and their board members.

Employment is one area where the council has been under serious criticism from WAG’s planning inspectorate over the Deposit LDP. This document is supposed to set out the plans to support the longterm vision for the city. Cardiff Civic Society (interest declaration, I’m its Chair) warned the council more than a year ago that its approach was flawed and didn’t follow the guidelines. Last year we further contended that it was “unsound” in six areas, housing and employment among them. I know that even more expert, and you would have thought influential, voices were saying the same thing. The council chose to ignore all the warnings and deposited a complete nonsense of a plan that has been forensically dissected by WAG.

I expect on the tv that council leader, Rodney Berman, will trot out his already rehearsed defences: I’m guessing the words, of course, “the LDP idea is flawed” (how come all councils in Wales helped to develop it then?); “WAG is forcing us to build on greenfield sites” (no, it’s saying you have no evidence that you can avoid building on greenfield sites – the whole point of the plan!); “it’s an affront to democracy” (this from the council that consulted 123 citizens over the plan asking them questions no one could reasonably answer); “the Inspectorate won’t tell us what to do with the plan” (oh, they have and you’re very aware of the alternatives, all of them embarrassing and shameful in terms of the cost that has been wasted).

Two days after the tv programme the full council meets to decide what to do with the LDP. Frankly, all and any option is bad for Cardiff. To go back to the drawing board means a planning hiatus, massive embarrassment for politicians, a huge waste of money, and serious questions about council officers’ and members’ competence. To trudge through public hearings where the council attempts to shore up a totally flawed structure with ‘new evidence’ will simply expose even further its paucity of robust, creative solutions for Cardiff’s’ many problems. And it seems that at some point the inspectors’ patience might expire and they declare it unsound anyway.

Strangely, it may turn out to be good for Cardiff in the end. What the programme might demonstrate is how, for so long, the city has depended on a self-generated aura of ‘capital city-ness’ and that big, brash, often violent planning solutions will succeed. The “we’re not afraid to make difficult decisions” mindset of minor dictators.

Like many people, I think Cardiff needs to take a long, hard, painful look at itself. It needs to question the quality of its decision making, the ease with which it has accepted assertions (like long-term benefit from sporting events) as though they were inviolate facts that would survive recession and global warming. It needs to engage with its civic society (and maybe even its Civic Society!) in a meaningful way so that communities in Butetown, Whitchurch, and Ely and elsewhere might once again be connected.

A local development plan might seem boring, but it’s actually, when used with skill, imagination and vigour, potentially a way of mapping a better future for us all – not just a few.

Now if next week’s half hour on BBC Wales manages to make some of that sound interesting then it will be worth this year’s licence fee.

WAG admits courts defeat over Llanishen – fight resumes

Llanishen Reservoir Cardiff by Greg Marshall

Llanishen Reservoir Cardiff by Greg Marshall

Just as it was thought that all would be decided on 22nd September, the fight for the future of Llanishen Reservoir starts again.
In April 2009 the Welsh Environment Minister, Jane Davidson, rejected Western Power’s appeal following the Second Public Planning Inquiry which was held in June 2008. In effect, she refused permission for Western Power’s scheme to build 324 houses and flats on the site of Llanishen reservoir. Her decision was a little unusual in that the planning inspector who had presided over the appeal, recommended that the development should go ahead. However, the Minister disagreed with the Inspector’s conclusions and did not accept his recommendation.
Unhappy developer: they needed to challenge the minister on a matter of law, hence the impending court case. At the door of the court, as it were, WAG climbed down:

Having considered the grounds put forward by the company, and on the advice of Counsel, the Welsh Ministers accept the legal arguments put forward by the company that aspects of the assessment through which they reached their original decision were incorrect. Rather than continue the legal proceedings and go to a hearing which they consider they would not win, the Welsh Ministers have agreed not to contest the challenge.

Basically, WAG cocked up.
So now – and follow carefully: the court will send the decision back to the minister; she will notify those who took part in the original appeal and ask for any new information; she will decide whether or not to re-open the inquiry; a decision will be made, but not this year.
In the meanwhile: the minister has listed the reservoir as a building of historic importance and Cardiff Council in its Deposit Local Development Plan (previous blogs) has shown that the site is part of the protected Nant Fawr river corridor. That should made a rejection of the planning application a forgone conclusion.
But … the developers have loads of money. They must feel victorious in getting the court showdown. And the very status of the LDP has been questioned by the minister’s own planners.
As ever – pace Swalec Stadium, Bute Park Bridge, Sophia Gardens Car Parking, playing fields et al – it’s the objectors, the local people, who have to find the emotional, physical and financial resources to go through the whole fight again. And, in fighting to get the Deposit LDP returned to the drawing board, some of us may be unwittingly helping Western Power Distribution Investments Limited destroy Llanishen reservoir.

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

Residents get the chance to meet Eisteddfod bosses

It’s all happening here in the first week in August, you know, Wales’ premier cultural event The Eisteddfod. Not that you’d know if you lived within 100 metres of the big tent and all that it brings because the Eisteddfod and Cardiff Council have been decidedly coy about meeting the locals – let alone engaging with them.
This Thursday 3rd July (at the Scout Hut in Fields Park Road Car Park at 7.30pm) Betsan Williams the Marketing Secretary and Alan Gwynant, Technical Director of the Eistedfodd will face the residents together with Paul Carter the Cardiff Council Operational Manager.
I suggested to local councillors a year or more ago that it would be a good idea that such a meeting should take place: Pontcanna, Canton and Riverside – who will be affected along with Gabalfa ward – has one of the largest populations of Welsh speakers in the country. It’s also media land. And an area blooded over the destruction of Sophia Gardens by the building of the electricity substation that now doubles as a cricket pitch (you know, the Swalec Stadium!).
So you would have thought, maybe, that they’d engage early on: encouraging us to fund raise; to put welcome posters in our windows and in the local shops; for the Council to put great big welcome banners on the main roads; even make us a special offer for admission to make up for all the hastle it will cause.
Hastle – you mean like parts of Poncanna Fields being behind a security wall for months and out of action until April 2009; like noise and light pollution from the all day events in our back gardens (yes literally for many) going on well into to the night; the joy of a Tented Youth Village in the middle of the town; no parking (everyone will park and ride, of course) which means no room for residents and often no access to our own homes; serious concerns about emergency access to the site. And then there’s restitution of the Fields to their former state. We’re assured that the Council has more than enough money in hand to do this.
Then there’s the cost of saying Croeso. Cardiff Council has, of course, made a generous grant. To which is added the £300,000 plus of temporary works and restitution. And there was a budget for new access at Western Avenue (essential for the Eisteddfod and the cricket stadium we are told). Oh, and the plan to spend £1M plus on a new bridge in Bute park – equally essential. And it costs £70,000 or so every day there’s a major event in Cardiff – for clearing up – so that might be an issue. And park and ride. And policing.
So, whatever the bill – and it could be millions depending on what you count – Cardiff residents will pick up the tabs, and face a long recovery from something they’ve clearly not been invited to. This is bad marketing (they need our footfall), bad pr for the Welsh language, and very bad local politics that is still only driven by Cardiff getting headline events at the same time destroying assets like the Heritage Parklands.
Yes, they will claim an economic benefit to the area of £6.5M. That’s a nigh on £40 spend by every visitor from 2 to 90, every day they are here. Going into the ‘local’ economy, not the franchises on the maes. Likely?
It might just be an interesting meeting.

Cardiff Bay’s Comeuppance?

Yesterday’s Politics Show pitted the usual suspects – an urbane professor of urban planning against the shifty council leader – to debate the future of Cardiff bay housing. Are they really the slums of tomorrow?

NewImage

Has the local council (the Lib Dem led, supported by Plaid one …) really given permission for 9,000 more tacky boxes without any infra structure when most of the current properties have negative equity if morgaged and are difficult to let at ‘economic’ rents?

 What is surprising about these kinds of issues is not the blindingly obvious: much of the housing development is awful, built to the lowest possible standard, a discrace to the design and architectural professions (if they were ever involved); Rodney Berman admitted that the Council had sold off land to replensish its dwindling capital coffers and regretted that the current ‘housing blip’ might mean there’s no more coming. No, the revelation as always is that Rodney Berman tries to pretend either ‘is wasn’t my fault guv’ or ‘ actually there isn’t a problem’. And the interviewer, while seeming to press hard, actually lets him get away with disingenuity (aka a politician being economical with the truth).

 Take the ‘there’s no infrastructure for these thousands of homes – everyone has to drive everywhere’ question. Oh that’s not true says our Rodders – there’s an Asda round the corner (ideal for low environmental impact shopping – like the morning paper), and a 50 metre swimming pool – yes the one that isn’t quite an Olympic pool, is privately financed so your Cardiff Council Max card won’t get you a discount and the much lauded (and appreciated by me) WAG scheme to let wrinklies in for free doesn’t work either. Pull the other water wing Mr Leader!

 As for libraries, schools, a place for the Scouts or WI to meet: well, we clearly don’t need such things – or if we do we can get our Chelsea Tractor out and Zoom Across Town .. No, we’re all high earning singletons and the bars in the Bay will suit us fine.

 Many, many years ago in my first job as a government press officer I had to release a report that looked at the development of the New Towns in the sixties (yep, that long ago). Called “The First Hundred Families”, its simple conclusions caused quite a stir. If people are to be happy in their new homes they need pavements, street lighting and infrastructure – a local pub, a post office (remember this was a long time ago and governments then thought post offices were important), a place to meet etc. And the community had to make sure these things were there at the start.

  Now: large scale development is the province of private capital – they’ve already given the council millions for the land, and they’ll make their money out of the suckers who buy the tacky boxes. Infrastructure? That’s for idiots or Tesco/Asda et al. Our newly re-elected leader seems to agree. Just don’t buy a house in the Bay.