The focus of Cardiff's rebirth is the mud flats in its bay. Charles Darwent reports.
A briefing from Major General Barry Lane, CB, OBE, chief executive of Cardiff Bay Development Corporation (CBDC), is a faintly surreal experience. "Here", says Lane, martially tapping a blown-up aerial photograph of the bay with a telescopic pointer, "is the new Opera House." A glance through the office window reveals the remains of a marshalling yard. "Here (tap) a mixed housing development." (Derelict dock site). "Here (tap) five acres of light industrial factory units." (Council rubbish tip). One begins to have one's doubts.
But one shouldn't. In a perverse sort of way, the relative invisibility of the CBDC's regeneration of Cardiff Bay may well be a token of its eventual success. In a recent Financial Times survey of Wales the author concluded that the bay's development had "never really got going" in the four years since the CBDC's inception. That is, in a sense, the point. A glance from the FT's own windows would reveal a dockland regeneration scheme that has "got going", as evidenced by two-mile traffic jams, acres of cheap speculative office building and walls daubed with advertisements for Class War. Unlike the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC), the CBDC has decided that slowly, slowly catchee relocated financial services headquarters come to service the WDA-induced South Wales industrial boom. Their logic is that private investment will follow adequate public investment in infrastructure, a compelling enough argument.
Unlike the LDDC, too, the CBDC has been given no Draconian planning powers, which means that all development schemes - including Associated British Ports' 6-hectare flagship project, Capital Waterside - have to be approved by two politically opposed councils, South Glamorgan and Cardiff City. This, according to Lane, in turn means that potential blips are ironed out before committee stage without any consequent blurring of aims.
A nice example of this is the bay's planned peripheral distribution road (or "Necklace of Opportunity", in local public relations hype), which threatened to cut the 2,700-acre site in two. After discussion, it was decided to bury half of the road in a cut-and-cover tunnel, which will stop potential polarisation, but which will also free up land otherwise lost for CBDC reclamation and resale, a case study in turning commercial swords into civic ploughshares. With existing housing for the local community carefully integrated into new projects, the ghettoisation of other urban development corporations (UDCs) has also been avoided. In any case, Lane is pleased to report that 90% of new housebuyers have come from within 20 miles of Cardiff, as has £35 million of the estimated £250 million in private investment that the scheme has so far attracted.
Nonetheless, there have been problems at the CBDC, notably to do with the now notorious barrage scheme at the heart of the corporation's plans. The bay suffers a 40-foot tidal drop twice a day, exposing mud flats which the CBDC reasons sensitive investors might find unpalatable. Alas, insensitive wading birds find the sewage-rich sludge entirely to their taste, and environmentalists bewail the fact that the council's planned 500-acre freshwater lake will destroy the waders' cloacal habitat.
The subsequent debate is likely to reach its climax this month, when the Barrage Bill comes up for Royal Assent. Should the environmentalists manage to prevail, says Lane doughtily, "the CBDC will continue the battle by other means: but we'll have to fight bloody hard to get an edge".