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News - 03/04/2017

To deliver a brave new commercial future, think like a Victorian

Lee Mogridge gives his take on the recently signed £1.3 billion Swansea Bay City Deal, which could transform economic opportunity across the region.

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It is easy to think that the challenge to revitalise our city is enormous and so it is instructive to consider what Victorian urban planners faced. 
The UK was the first to industrialise and the first to urbanise, yet the lack of basic infrastructure led to pollution, overcrowding and disease and the collapse of life expectancy. In cities of over 100,000, life expectancy at birth dropped to 29 years in the 1830s. 
The Victorians understood that cities were essential to wealth creation. Investment was critical but so was active citizenship, intense civic pride and long-term vision. 
They built not to meet the pledges set out over four or five years of an election term, but with the expectation that infrastructure and municipal properties would serve citizens and prosperity for the next 100 years. 
Their sense of mission is useful to recall as Swansea Bay received news in March of £1.3bn of investment over a 15-year period. That figure breaks down as £241m from the UK and Welsh governments, £360m from the public sector and universities and another £673m in private investment.
The broader ambition is laudable. The regeneration of our region through education, energy, health and improved communications, which includes the transformational economic power of digital networks. But with over half of the total expected to come from private investment, what does our city need to focus on to secure that commitment? 
At present, there is no grade A commercial office space available in the city centre and the retail offering is fragmented and failing, plus there is a lack of quality housing. The net effect of this is that rents are too low and investment yields too high for private sector developers to secure funding and take the risk of building. This is where the renewed vision of private and public partnership will prove critical. 
Investment requirements to stimulate private investment would include sustainable living via affordable quality housing, decent public transportation and infrastructure, an aesthetically pleasing environment with more green space, retail and leisure facilities and quality commercial space to attract future inward investment and retain more indigenous companies and individual talent.  The new concept of digital infrastructure to attract hi-tech and cloud data firms will reap benefits, providing that the other building blocks are first put in place to deliver a sustainable development model for the region.
We cannot lose sight of the simple fact that private investment must deliver attractive, sustainable returns and the underlying conditions to facilitate such investment must first be put in place, but against the current poor economic environment currently being experienced within the city, this can only be achieved with true public/private sector partnerships. The City Deal could go a long way in helping to achieve this. 
By working to reduce the cost of development with sensible infrastructure planning and delivery, we can create the long-term civic transformation needed to benefit citizens of the Swansea Bay Region for decades to come.


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