It’s a question all Cardiffians have asked: “Who the hell lives in those apartment blocks down the Bay?” Well, after weeks of surveillance watching comings and goings, I have the answer: some are let to businesses for managers attending a conference or a corporate jamboree; some are used by the BBC as temporary digs for actors or as venues for end-of-production parties; some are hired out as bases for weekend-long stag and hen dos; some are in the hands of nice retired couples from Ceredigion up in Sin City twice-a-year for a show at the WMC; some are brothels; some are cannabis factories; some are warehouses for knocked-off goods; some contain hives of illegal immigrants sleeping in shifts; some are left empty to accrue value as a pension pot; some are repossessed awaiting auction; and a few, a very few, are actually peoples’ homes. The poor sods.
The names, with their idiot-proof suggestiveness, vacuous anonymity and no-Welsh-spoken-here malevolence say it all: Adventurers Quay, Admirals Landing, Scott Harbour, Sovereign Quay, Celestia, Strata, Rigarossa, Vega House, Maia House, Atlas House, Electra House, Aquila House, Sirius House, Waterquarter, Caspian Point, Harbour Point, Century Wharf, Isis, etc. They glower behind razor-wired security gates and batteries of CCTV cameras around the Roath Basin, the Graving Docks, Dumballs Road and Lloyd George Avenue (the intended grand boulevard linking town and Bay that ended up a sinisterly empty muggers’ paradise leading from nowhere in particular to a set of traffic lights under Herbert Street railway bridge). Over half of all Bay apartments were bought off plan, sight unseen, by overseas investors. Most of the rest went to amateur investors jumping on the buy-to-let bandwagon, or spoon-fed saps taking out 120% mortgages based on fantasy self-certified incomes to buy into the café latte lifestyle, like wot they seen on thu telly. Absenteeism, transience, short-termism and isolation, the inevitable consequences when gluttonous property developers are given a free hand to determine the nature of housing, combine to eliminate even the slimmest possibility of ever creating a community in these soulless non-places.
At night the towers don’t twinkle with the glittering lifestyles of affluent swingers, but stand dark and forlorn, surplus to requirements. Only 10% of Bay flats are actually owner-occupied; the rest are let, sub-let and then sub-sub-let. The few permanent residents are overwhelmingly aged from 19 to 30, living on six-month leases in a state of constant flux: shop assistants, trainees, interns, students with parents who bought as an investment rather than pay their offspring’s rent, institutionalised gay men who obediently self-ghettoise, benefit claimants who slip past the letting agents’ checks, callow girls from the Vale who have watched too many episodes of Sex And the City, lovers testing their relationship to destruction in miniscule spaces, and unsocialised young yobs newly liberated from parents to puke in the foyer, leave rubbish to rot in corridors and blast out thumping tunes through wafer-thin walls.
Inside, you can smell what next door is having for supper and hear your neighbours flushing the toilet, but you never actually meet them. Tenants don’t speak; why bother, when everybody relocates regularly and nobody plans to stay for long. And since the owners are either overseas hedge funds who don’t give a damn, or avaricious novices from the unlovely English middle classes, there are endless fractious disputes over repairs, faults, leaks and breakdowns. While resentful and neglectful of their obligations, these landlords suddenly become fussy and demanding if a tenant wants to hang a picture on a wall or when it’s time for the deposit to be returned. And you can guess who is asked to pick up the tab when the fancy panels and funky facades of the towers begin to crumble: yes, it’s all slapped on the “service charge” – meaning tenants don’t just have the privilege of paying their masters’ mortgages; they also get to maintain the parasites’ buildings.
Further south, on the peninsular between the Taff and Ely numbingly named, in a triple breach of the Trade Descriptions Act, the ‘International Sports Village’, the cheap’n’nasty blocks look out over tracts of fenced-off rubble, car parks, roundabouts to nowhere, paths blocked by barricades, and the rotting debris of junk culture, blowing in the wind. Among all the new buildings and roads, not one acknowledges Cardiff or Wales in its name. Here the past is erased, the present is ephemeral and the future is x-rated.
Everywhere you look there are mini-tragedies. The Sand Wharf blocks contrast tellingly with the 15-storey 1970s Channel View flats they face across the Marl. A few oblique angles + a brightly coloured wall or two + a parking space = sophisticated urban living; a plain rectangle + monochrome panels + Council tenants = hard-to-let sink. But up close and personal the latter are superior in all regards bar the developer’s sales pitch. The vernacular ‘town houses’ of Windsor Quay, with their skinflint square footage and bleak communal no-go zones, were supposedly built for loaded young professionals doing something lucrative in the media, but the shortage of yuppies with money to burn in an area where average annual earnings are barely £20k meant they ended up rented out to housing associations or bought by taxi drivers. The forbidding blocks of Ferry Court form a ghost town of extraordinary ugliness which wouldn’t look out of place on the outskirts of Moscow, grouped around a godforsaken wind-tunnel approachable from the foreshore up a sheer flight of steps. This development was originally called Prospect Place, but because being built at right-angles to the water served up a ‘prospect’ of the four-lane Butetown Link’s round-the-clock crescendo a few metres from the windows on one side and the gloomy walls of companion blocks on the other, the name was soon dropped. Adjacent is Watermark, yet another instantly dated, unsightly speculation. Wandering around aghast I didn’t see a soul, bar a solitary woman pumping iron in the ground-floor gymnasium – she must be that toned, metropolitan high-flyer with improbable teeth featured heavily in the promotional literature.
On the banks of the Ely on the other side of the peninsular are still more, called Victoria Wharf after the warehouses that stood here when it was the Ely tidal harbour. Mostly bought at the peak of the property bubble without a viewing by overseas fund managers and English second-homers as buy-to-lets, their value has tumbled. So, instead of being the city bolt-holes of well-heeled yachtsmen mooring a skiff at Penarth Marina, the six insolent slabs are transit camps where tenants ignore each other in the corridors and relocate as soon as possible. The Cogan Spur rattling the bedroom windows, the bland aluminium barns of the Celtic Gateway Business Park to the north and the shaded position under Llandochau hill aren’t helping those all-important loan-to-value ratios, but developers are hoping for better returns from the next unwanted scheme on the tip of the peninsular: ‘Cardiff Pointe’. The preposterous pretentions conveyed in that silly silent ‘e’ give a clue to what we can expect.
Contrary to the image of achingly hip alluring minimalism for the aspirational peddled by Bellway, Bryant, Wimpey, Redrow, Persimmon, Westbury and all the other developers, all these apartments are actually half-hearted and grudging shoe-boxes kitted out with uniform fixtures and fittings in the sterile style of an airport foyer and bedecked in cosmetic mockeries like phoney porches and ‘Juliet’ balconies too narrow to accommodate an inhaling anorexic. High rise living is high rise living and, just because all the lessons of failed 1960s tower blocks were so soon forgotten, calling something a “penthouse” makes no difference. Nobody really wants to live in mid air; nor ever will. The developments all inadvertently admit this by providing none of the amenities – schools, corner shops, social centres, libraries, pubs, parks, and so on – that are intrinsic to real, evolving communities built to last. It is taken as read that nobody living in a Bay apartment today will be at the same address in 10 years time, let alone spend a life there. And without that core of lifetime residents and their succeeding generations Cardiff Bay will remain forever a disconnected and dislocated wistful wasteland.
Saturation buy-to-let has created misery in Cardiff and is storing up intractable social problems for the future. 10,000 are on the housing waiting-list; at least another 20,000 are functionally homeless as sofa-surfers or in overcrowded conditions; the city has 5,000 empty properties and 7,000 empty commercial premises…yet none of these issues are addressed because putting a roof over your head, that most basic and fundamental human necessity, has been delegated, as has everything in the UK, to the arbitrary mercies of “market forces”. Whenever I hear somebody defending market capitalism I ask them how they’re enjoying the housing market. They soon shut up.
The panoramas of glass and concrete that Cardiff’s rulers so craved, to signify their relevance and dynamism, have been achieved: the view from the Taff Crossing is now one of unalloyed neophilia. But Cardiff has paid the price with the crushing of local character and the sidelining of local needs. And in the city’s bleak, blank apartment blocks, marooned on their dusty, floodlit building sites, a strange new strain of Cardiffian set apart from the rest of the city is being grown like bacteria in a test tube; trapped guinea pigs who will have to learn the hard way that this has always been a city on the run from reality.