The Severn crossing tolls will soon be abolished, bringing opportunities and challenges for the cities of Cardiff, Newport, and Bristol.

Earlier this year, British viewers tuned into a fourth and final series of one of the finest television programmes of the last decade. The Bridge was notable for its script writing and cleverly layered characters. An additional – and essential – element was the eponymous bridge, which connects Copenhagen in Denmark with Malmo in Sweden. It is an iconic piece of infrastructure, providing a 16km road and rail link between the two cities.1The Malmo-Palermo Express, The Economist, 22nd March 2018 It has brought the economies and interactions of two cities into one metropolitan region without either losing their respective distinctive national identities. The tunnel and two bridges which connect Monmouthshire with South Gloucestershire don’t have the length of the Øresund Strait crossing, but the effect when they opened would have been similar. Infrastructure brought two densely populated regions together.

At the end of 2018 the Severn Bridge tolls will be abolished.2We now know the date the Severn Bridge tolls will be scrapped, Bristol Post, 11th August 2017 These peaked at £6.70 for cars to cross into Wales and reached £20 for large buses and goods vehicles. The tolls have been a disincentive to building the scale of cross-border economy which would otherwise have been possible. Announcing the removal of tolls the Secretary of State for Wales said:

“By ending tolls for the 25 million annual journeys between two nations we will strengthen the links between communities and help to transform the joint economic prospects of South Wales and the South West of England.”3Drivers to benefit from free Severn crossings from 2018, Government Press Release, 21st July 2017

The benefits of a strong cross-border economy have long existed, but the removal of the tolls does make this an especially pertinent time to consider the relationship between the cities of Cardiff, Newport and Bristol, and between the Cardiff Capital Region4Cardiff Capital Region includes 10 local authorities: Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Caerphilly, Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil, Monmouthshire, Newport, Rhondda Cynon Taff, Torfaen & Vale of Glamorgan. and West of England City Region.5The West of England metro region includes the unitary authorities of South Gloucestershire, Bristol, Bath & North East Somerset. North Somerset opted out of the devolution deal and is thus not a member of the combined authority but actively cooperates on cross-authority matters. The former Mayor of Bristol worked with Newport and Cardiff Council leaders to develop an initiative called Great Western Cities. This led to a 2016 report by Metro-Dynamics entitled “Britain’s Western Powerhouse”.6Great Western Cities report authored by Metro Dynamics receives widespread press coverage, Metro Dynamics, 14th February 2016 That slogan was back in use in January this year, at the Severn Growth Summit in Newport. Over 350 invited guests attended including representatives from the business, education, cultural and digital sectors.7Welsh Secretary – “Now is the time to create our own Western Powerhouse”, 22nd January 2018 Reports from within the venue suggest a positive event, but beyond it there was criticism. Plaid Cymru published a list of Welsh invitees who did not attend, and also noted that the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, was not at the event. Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards criticised the expense of hosting the summit and mocked the Welsh Secretary, suggesting that his job be rebranded as the “Secretary of State for Bristol”.8Cardiff and Bristol economic region summit ‘snubbed’ by key figures, Nation.Cymru, 10th February 2018

Variations in performance between the cities of Cardiff, Newport and Bristol can be stark. Bristol featured in the top ten UK cities for Gross Value Added (GVA) per worker (£56,900) while Newport was ranked 54 out of 62, with a GVA of £44,100.9Cities Outlook 2018, Centre for Cities, 29th January 2018 Bristol has the eighth highest employment rate in the UK while Cardiff is surprisingly down at number 58.10Cities Outlook 2018, Centre for Cities, 29th January 2018 However, the story is not quite the one-way journey along the M4 that would suggest. The World Economic Forum ranked Cardiff as the second best British city, after London, for its “ability to grow, attract and retain talent”. The Welsh capital was just three places behind Singapore and two ahead of Birmingham, while also outperforming giants such as Rome, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro and Mumbai. Only three UK cities made it into the top 90.11These are the best countries and cities for attracting and developing talent, World Economic Forum, 7th February 2018

A common refrain among critics of the Severn Growth Summit was that cooperation with Bristol was of little benefit to Wales and would see Newport become a suburb of its larger neighbour. This is an argument dismissed by West of England Metro-Mayor Tim Bowles: “I am the classic case, I worked for years north of Newport commuting from South Gloucestershire, so it is very much a two-way flow”.12Interview with Mayor Tim Bowles undertaken for this article, 27th March 2018 Mayor Bowles explained how he saw a relationship across the region as one “built on the strength of universities, research, innovation and high tech” with an emphasis on “owning the intellectual property”. He proudly noted that Bristol is booming but “we are almost running out of space here as it stands, space for development is limited and the removal of the tolls creates a natural, easy and accessible way to grow jobs and innovation”. This idea of an innovative Severnside is something which South Wales Argus editor Nicole Garnon notes is already emerging:

“If you look at the Alacrity Foundation and high-tech small businesses around here, there is an incredible level of growth in the sector. Really bright young people who are mentored to set up their business and then very often their businesses are staying in this area. So, they are creating this whole network of high-tech businesses”.13Interview with Nicole Garnon undertaken for this article, 9th April 2018

The removal of tolls will lead to a shift in the existing functional economic area which is based not on political boundaries but the ways in which people interact on a regular basis through work, education and socialising. In March, it was reported that Newport had the fastest moving property market in the UK. The average house price in Newport has risen by 7% to £176,000, yet this is still markedly less than the equivalent figure for a property in Bristol where the average is £300,000. It is of course one thing to see house prices rising when there is a constraint on available land for new-builds, but Newport is actually seeing more new homes built than any other local authority in Wales.14How Newport became Britain's fastest-moving property market, WalesOnline, 15th March 2018 The appeal of living in Gwent and commuting to Bristol has long existed but there are signs that demand is rapidly increasing. Speaking in a recent House of Commons debate on rail franchising, Newport East MP Jessica Morden referenced a 297% increase in passengers using Severn Tunnel Junction station, a small rural park-and-ride stop in south Monmouthshire. Working with local campaign groups, she is seeking to improve capacity and frequency on the line from Newport to Bristol.15Jessica Morden MP contribution to Rail Franchising debate, Hansard, 10th January 2018

These demographic changes are market-driven but the political decision-making will determine how Newport and the surrounding areas can benefit. Jayne Bryant, Welsh Assembly Member for Newport West, said that “creating good quality jobs and trying to create the right environment” were essential to ensuring that Newport becomes an integral part of the wider economic region and is not subsumed by bigger neighbours. She added: “it is really important that Newport maintains its strong identity” and that the city “has an opportunity to cement its creativity”.16Interview with Jayne Bryant AM undertaken for this article, 3rd April 2018 There are signs that the environment Bryant described is coming into being. While traditional retail has been hard hit in Newport due to changing customer habits and the accessibility of alternative shopping locations, the city-centre focus has shifted to respond to a growing demand for social experiences. The Friars Walk shopping centre has brought some of the big chain restaurants to the city, but independent outlets have also flourished. Nicole Garnon commented: “I think there are more independent businesses opening in Newport. That is definitely a change we’ve seen over the last 18 months; small cafes, bars, and restaurants. That has definitely had an effect in Newport.”

Tim Bowles noted that the Bristol region saw the proximity of urban South Wales as an asset in attracting inward investment. Quoting one recent pitch he had seen to a major creative sector employer he said the message was “buy Bristol and get access to Cardiff as a bonus”. While this might be getting through at a corporate level, there are concerns that locally there is confusion over pan-city working. Garnon said that this is “partly because we’ve got the Cardiff Capital Region of which there has been a lot of focus, and then we had this big meeting (Great Western Cities) which was promoting this network of Newport, Bristol and Cardiff but then went very quiet. There is confusion about how the initiatives fit together”. Chief Executive of Newport City Council, Will Godfrey explained: “in terms of Great Western Cities, this was really pushed in the first place by Newport as we wanted to shift the philosophy away from seeing Cardiff and Bristol as a threat, to one where we can work together for mutual benefit”.17Response to an email sent to the Leader of Newport City Council, requesting comment for this article, 29th March 2018 There is currently no formal organisation; rather the relevant city leaders meet when appropriate. It also seems that the message of the recent Severn Growth Summit has further muddied the waters. While that initiative was broadly welcomed, its purpose was seen by some as a pitch to business based in the South West to consider investing in Wales, rather than encouraging cross-border working on economic development. Indeed, while there appears to be support for the principle of close working between the Cardiff Capital Region and the West of England City Region, the concept lacks an identifiable champion. This is perhaps inevitable due to political sensitives around the informal partnership which straddles two governmental jurisdictions.

Both Jayne Bryant and Tim Bowles saw the benefits of a soft power relationship across the Severn region. Bryant said that the “Welsh Government has a strong role to play” and that Ministers “understand the importance to look east as well which is particularly important when the tolls go”. Mayor Bowles was pragmatic and upbeat in his response: “there will clearly be different funding streams, different ways of doing things, but frankly that’s what has always been going on whether it is local enterprise partnerships, whether it is unitaries working with counties. However, it can always get sorted out if you have the drive and ambition to make it work.”

One sector which has emerged as a pioneer in harnessing the benefits of cross-border working is academia. The Great Western Four (GW4) initiative has sought to pool research expertise from Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter Universities to develop internationally recognised projects which would be beyond the scope of the individual institutions.

There is willingness among politicians and business leaders to make a success of the cross-border region, but the lack of a formal organisation presents difficulties. Firstly, announcements and initiatives can become disjointed without a programme or strategy. The Great Western Cities initiative was pursued by three civic leaders, all of whom have been replaced since its launch. The momentum behind regional working is at present overly reliant on its inclusion in the agenda of key individuals. And a more formal project management organisation is also needed to win the hearts and minds of residents. The confusion referenced by Nicole Garnon is understandable when people are hearing uncoordinated announcements about different, sometimes unrelated, initiatives.

The nature of the organisation would require careful consideration to ensure balanced representation, including the cities, city regions, Welsh Government and potentially the neighbouring Forest of Dean District Council. There is no need for great expense; it would not require additional politicians; chairmanship could alternate between Welsh and English representatives and administration could be shared among existing authorities. Where possible, meetings should be open to the public and minutes published.

For the Severn region to prosper it must realise that pragmatic connectivity and co-working on the international stage need not mean a loss of local identity. The UK has only recently embraced the idea of city devolution and is still a relatively centralised state. This approach has left local authorities working largely in isolation from one another rather than coming together as metropolitan and multi-city regions. The effect has been to funnel investment and raise the profile of the largest conurbation in the region.  Thus, Newcastle, Birmingham and Leeds have prospered while Sunderland, Wolverhampton and Bradford have done less well. Much of this article has focused on Newport precisely because it has an economic giant to its east and a cultural and political centre to its west. The fear of losing its identity is understandable, but parochialism will not halt market forces. Instead, embracing both partnership where it is mutually beneficial, and courteous competition where that is appropriate, can lead to a productive working relationship between the cities. Combined authorities and metro mayors are political constructs, but city regions are quite the opposite. They are a reflection of the way in which we all live our lives, and human instinct pays little attention to lines drawn on a map.

To plan for the economic future of South East Wales without paying attention to the economic success of Bristol would be akin to Connecticut ignoring the presence of New York City. To see commuting from Newport to Bristol as a threat to the local economy would be equivalent of pulling up the tram line connecting Strasbourg to its German neighbour Kehl. What interviewing people on both sides of the bridge has demonstrated is that while the detailed ambitions for each city may vary, they all see the benefit of closer working. Furthermore, there is genuine excitement at what can be achieved not just for political jurisdictions but in terms of generating opportunities for residents across the region.

“There is now a significant body of evidence which identifies the power of city regions as drivers of economic growth.  It therefore makes sense for the Cardiff Capital Region and the West of England to work together where appropriate.”

– Will Godfrey, Chief Executive, Newport City Council

“The world is starting to trade on a city or region basis. Having a really powerful region which looks just beyond the brilliant Bristol / Bath City Region is going to work compellingly well. On the global map, this relationship is huge.”

– Tim Bowles, Mayor, West of England


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