Square deal

The dismal zone in front of Cardiff Central railway station has been an embarrassing eyesore ever since it was reclaimed from the River Taff in 1850. I have written about the travails of old Temperance Town in a previous blog (see http://tinyurl.com/nszvkbr), so won’t drone on about it here. Suffice to say, time and again during the past 165 years this area has been a graveyard for grandiose schemes gone hopelessly wrong. Guess what? It’s happening again!

Property developers Rightacres have been given planning permission to proceed with a total overhaul of the space. The bus station will be replaced by a new headquarters building for BBC Wales plus an office block, while the adjacent vacant plot (where once stood the Council’s planning offices before being demolished to make way for a 32-storey ‘glass needle’ that was never built) will become another office block. What, you may ask, will Cardiff do without a bus station? Never fear: we have an assurance that one will come along in due course at some vague future date (rather like Cardiff buses), and will (perhaps) be located where Marland House and the NCP car park currently insult optic nerves. And it won’t be any old bus station – no siree, it will be a ‘transport hub’ with hotel, retail units and yet more offices crammed onto the site. There might even be room allocated for an occasional bus! Meanwhile, in the inevitable aeons that will pass before this thrilling prospect becomes a reality, Cardiff will have to muddle through without a bus station altogether. When you can’t even provide what’s taken for granted in every one-horse town, all the fine talk about a rapid-transit Metro network for the ‘city region’ begins to sound a little optimistic. Hub? Nah, more like Husk – until further notice. Bye bye bus station; you mattered to the 33% of Cardiffians who rely on buses to get around.

This is how it must be because the BBC has decided they need a £50 million, five-storey, glass and curtain-wall monstrosity by London architects Foster & Partners that will gobble up half the entire area of Central Square – a typically extravagant self-indulgence by an organisation notorious for misusing its TV licence bounty to pay out obscene salaries to a tiny pool of ‘talent’ and ludicrously generous golden handshakes to top executives. The BBC already has a perfectly adequate HQ in Llandaf, opened in 1967, plus a concert hall in the WMC, opened in 2009, plus vast studios at Roath Lock, opened in 2011, not to mention their insolently intrusive Big Screen outside St David’s Hall. What is this new edifice for? It can’t be to gain square footage, since the Llandaf complex is twice the size. And it certainly isn’t for programme-making, since BBC Wales produces fewer hours of Welsh-specific programming than it did when operating out of a back room in a redundant Adamsdown chapel in the early 60s. It is being built for two reasons: as a self-promoting boastful exercise in corporate swagger, in order to rub in the BBC’s omniscience in Wales; and as a shameless piece of real estate wheeler-dealing. The 17 acre Llandaf sites straddling Llantrisant Road have been sold to Taylor Wimpey for an unknown sum (despite the Beeb’s publicly funded status and public service remit they don’t feel obliged to disclose information deemed “commercially sensitive”). Nowhere in the BBC’s Charter is ‘property speculation’ mentioned as one of the corporation’s functions, yet this is now their primary activity in Cardiff. Given their track record of ineptitude when negotiating with the hard-headed moguls of big business (eg: the recent sale of Television Centre in London), one doesn’t hold out much hope that dotty Auntie got market value for these formerly public assets.

Taylor Wimpey intend to demolish the BBC buildings and bestow on traffic-clogged Llandaf a thuddingly predictable massive overkill of over 400 town houses and apartment blocks, 20% of which will be “affordable” – a term that volume builders always wield proudly, seemingly oblivious to the fact that, even if taken at face value, this is a shocking admission that 80% will be “unaffordable”. Therefore this is just another feeding-frenzy venture for the benefit of Taylor Wimpey shareholders, unconnected to Cardiff’s housing needs, unsanctioned by Cardiff’s people and unsympathetic to Cardiff’s geography, demographics and infrastructure. Working out the arithmetic, at an average construction cost of £50k per unit and selling price of £¼ million per unit Taylor Wimpey stand to rake in £80 million profit while another chunk is taken out of the ever-shrinking green corridor on the west bank of the Taff and Llandaf is rendered an even more dysfunctional ghetto for platoons of perpetually insecure, mortgaged-to-the-hilt Brit boneheads, endorsing privilege and ratifying privatisation in anti-social, snooty cul-de-sacs.

Thus will be completed the pointless damage to this part of the once-beautiful lower Taff basin. It really got going in 1959 when a great slice was removed from the grounds of Rookwood, the 1886 neo-gothic pile designed by John Prichard (1817-1886) for docks’ magnate Edward Hill (1834-1902), to make way for a new Domestic Science College. This plug-ugly building was the first of Llandaff Technical College’s many expansionist projects following its establishment on Western Avenue in 1954 (all would ultimately become part of today’s gigantic Cardiff Met University). Then the BBC moved in on the opposite side of the road and charmless four-storey Broadcasting House was unceremoniously plonked in the arboretum of Baynton House – another distinguished left-over mansion from the coal era, originally built in 1868 for Glamorgan County Surveyor Alexander Bassett (1824-1887). Repeated extensions at both ends meant the eventual demolition of Baynton House in 1975 before the BBC took over the College in 1986 and later renamed it Tŷ Oldfield in honour of Alun Oldfield-Davies (1905-1988), long-serving ‘regional controller for Wales’ from 1945 to 1967.

It would have been perfectly possible to remodel and rejuvenate both buildings, in fact they had a £700,000 revamp courtesy of the licence fee just last year. But director of BBC Wales Rhodri Talfan Davies (he got there entirely on merit – it’s just a sheer, incredible double coincidence that both his father and his grand-father were also Beeb big-wigs) has decided that BBC Wales shouldn’t be skulking in the suburbs but strutting its stuff in a noticeable, indeed unavoidable, signature building bang in the centre of town. Stripping out the breezy gobbledegook about “getting closer to audiences”, “being a catalyst for regeneration” and “working with a range of partners to strengthen the creative community”, one is left with the old familiar Cardiff stench of secret chicanery swilling public assets into private hands. Even before a pre-cast concrete foundation stone has been laid, Tŷ Talfan, as it may well be called, has already been put up for sale to ‘institutional investors’ to whom BBC Wales (ie: us) will have to pay £90 million in rent that could otherwise be spent on programmes across a 25-year lease. You may think 25 years is not long, but in Cardiff that counts as pre-historic. Who would bet against a future BBC Wales controller (Iorwerth Talfan Davies?) calling this latest effort “outdated” before that quarter-century’s up?

The BBC’s ivory tower will present a ghastly first impression of the Welsh capital to visitors arriving by train. Other capitals express their identity in such focal points with monumental open spaces that affirm civic society; Cardiff will offer a mean, wind-buffeted concourse and permanently shaded walkways hemmed in by an anonymous forest of regulation glass and concrete towers that block all sight-lines to the Millennium Stadium, the city’s most famous structure and the reason most visitors come here in the first place. Instead of Wales’ national arena people will be greeted by, of all things, the BBC. What other city would let something as inconsequential as a poxy TV channel dominate its special collective domains in such a way? Imagine the offices of state-controlled China Central Television looming over Tianamen Square and you’re getting warm. Actually, it’s worse than that. The BBC’s broadcasting monopoly in Wales would be illegal in an independent country; there is no other ‘democracy’ where a single provider controls 90% of broadcasting output. So this is more than overweening arrogance and preposterous pretension; it’s a statement that you’re now entering British-run territory where brainwashers call the shots. No, Rhodri Talfan, it isn’t “exciting” – it’s excruciating.