An irreverent look at some of the hot topics in planning. All commentary is given in good faith but does not constitute advice! For specific help on planning matters, please contact us.

A strong welsh economy? Try communicating…

June 9th, 2011

Yesterday the new Environment Minister at the Welsh Government accepted, apparently without reservation, the recommendations of a research study that the planning system in Wales needs to be more focused on supporting development that brings jobs.

It is disappointing that it has taken until we are at the tail end of the economic downturn for this pretty obvious conclusion, to hit home with the Welsh Government. However, now they are on message perhaps there are some other obstacles to the creation of jobs and investment in Wales that they ought to get their teeth into.

As I head towards London on the train, the first obstacle that springs to mind is communications with our biggest neighbour and market, England.

London and the south east is a significant generator of investment in Wales. Many welsh businesses, large and small, look to London for new business. However, a standard return ticket from Bridgend to London at peak time is now over £200. For a journey of 150 miles. I have flown to Toronto for less.

Yes there are cheaper tickets available for this journey, Mr First Great Western, but not at the time that business folks need to travel. It isn’t any cheaper the other way either.

Then there are the toll booths at the Severn Bridge. You only have to see the queues that build up there at peak times to realise just how much cash is being taken out of our economy and sent to France. While it is easy to try and blame the operators, they have a contract and are only doing what the Government said they could. The burden is felt disproportionately by Wales based haulage companies wishing to serve the south west. Of course, it could also potentially hit English hauliers wishing to serve Wales, but for the big companies like Eddie Stobart based in the midlands or the north of England they can use the M50 at no cost.

From a planning perspective however, my biggest concern of the bridge is the effect on Newport. Sandwiched between Cardiff and Bristol this is a potentially fantastic City that needs all the help it can get to draw in new spending and attract city centre investment. The bridge, and in particular its queues and its costs, play a part in cutting off a large potential market.

So, what to do? If the charges are set in stone, then why not offer rebates to businesses based in assisted areas? Why not insist upon all the booths being opened at all times to reduce queues and delay?

To air communications. The sum total of our international airport links is the newly renamed Cardiff Airport. Which isn’t in Cardiff. That wouldn’t be a problem if one could get there easily from Cardiff city centre or the M4. However the road links are dire. The train stops in Rhoose village and in my experience there is precious little information on how to get from there to the airport itself. Local buses stop at the airport but many demand exact change – not something that the typical visitor landing in Cardiff from overseas is likely to have. And then there is the parking. If they are going to charge the kind of prices that they do, decent tarmac and signage isn’t unreasonable to ask for. And charging for ‘premium’ waiting and drop off? I am acutely embarrassed every time I drop off or collect a client or visitor from the airport. Compared to Edinburgh or Belfast, Cardiff’s airport sometimes appears quite parochial.

Of course the biggest problem for Cardiff airport is that few airlines seem to fly there. Cardiff Airport’s catchment is smaller than that of Bristol, but it is so difficult to get to the airport by ground that even its natural catchment turns to Bristol where it can. This has to be addressed at a strategic level.

The biggest communication problem in Wales in my view, however is that the fastest way to get from south to north (other than the Ieuanair service from Cardiff to Holyhead) is to drive via England. North Wales is functionally better related to Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham than it is Cardiff. You only have to hear the traffic reports every evening to know that there will be serious congestion at the Shottick lights on the A55 as commuters flow east and west. Some of those people want to go south, but can’t! The absence of new road and rail links from south to north also denies areas of mid Wales the communications that they need to trade effectively north and south.

Communications remain a cornerstone of the success of the welsh economy, yet the Welsh Government seems to an outside observer such as myself often to be more interested in matters such as banning carrier bags than tackling the big issues like this.

Of course, the Welsh Government would be justified to an extent in saying they simply do not have the devolved powers to address the big issues. The recent vote to extend those powers takes away that justification. For the sake of the long term future of the welsh economy I hope that they take decisive action on Wales’s communication problems – and quickly.