Cardiff catch-up

What with one thing and another I haven’t written much about contemporary Cardiff for quite a while. It’s time for a bit of a catch-up, looking at 10 selected topics in alphabetical order.

CARDIFF ARENA The idea that the Labour Party in Wales is ‘leftwing’ is so patently untrue it’s almost funny. It is put about by those who are thoroughly reconciled to and satisfied with the brute dog-eat-dog turbo-capitalism of the last 40 years and who take their cue from the USA where ‘socialist’ is utilised as a routine term of abuse by the far-right. To these political illiterates any mildly collectivist measure introduced for the greater good is labelled ‘socialism’ and thus the Labour-controlled Welsh Government and Labour-controlled Cardiff Council are veritable nests of revolutionary Bolsheviks. If only! The truth is the opposite. If ‘leftwing’ means anything it means anti-capitalist and, by that reckoning, Welsh Labour is very rightwing indeed. Look no further than Cardiff where the city has been surrendered neck and crop to corporate capitalism and its fundamental principles of inbuilt obsolescence, the marketisation of every aspect of life, rampant consumerism and ceaseless growth. The result for Cardiff is public squalor, extreme inequality, environmental holocaust, hollowed-out communities, transient non-places, gated enclaves, abandoned ghettos, legoland exurbia, a butchered social realm and the collapse of collective solidarity – the antithesis of leftwing values. Overseeing this process for nigh on 30 years since his days as leader of South Glamorgan Council has been Russell Goodway, currently Cardiff Council’s Cabinet Member for Investment & Development. Yes, the Blairite apostle of growth-for-growth’s-sake is still running the show (Council leader Huw Thomas is merely his latest glove-puppet) and, despite a 30 year track-record of disastrous failure, he’s still pursuing the same old inherently unsustainable policies, still flogging a horse not so much dead as embalmed. Now he’s trumpeting plans for a 15,000-capacity live music venue in Cardiff Bay, peddled as a “hub for the south west of the UK”, along with the usual apartment blocks, multi-storey carparks, shops, restaurants and bars, covering the area between Atlantic Wharf and the Wales Millennium Centre. It is being sold as a way to “rejuvenate Cardiff Bay” – a tacit admission that the whole Cardiff Bay project, orchestrated by Mr Goodway and his ilk, has been an unmitigated flop and all the “Europe’s most exciting waterfront” hype was just marketing bullshit. Barely 20 years old, the cheapskate, ugly, lacklustre, unfinished mess that currently occupies the area is now marked for demolition. Yes, it was all a terrible mistake – and now Goodway intends to repeat exactly the same blunders and the hype-merchants are busy trotting out their lies again. Quite apart from the fact that no Cardiffian has ever expressed the view that Cardiff must have a giant venue to host the millionaire purveyors of the basest commercial pop trash, and what Cardiff’s music scene actually needs is lots of small, diverse, independent-minded venues (like there used to be before Goodway’s values took control), the core error is as before: Cardiff being pimped as a downmarket British destination to generate the ‘footfall’ that Goodway’s economic model (drive, shop, eat, drink, borrow, repeat) relies upon. He’s hell-bent on learning no lessons from lockdown and getting back to ‘business as usual’. Someone should break it to him gently that the orgy’s over and that only failing cities in failed states are reduced to trying to be tourist magnets. And while they’re at it, they could mention the i-n-t-e-r-n-e-t, which has rendered much of in-person consumerism extinct, the e-n-v-i-r-o-n-m-e-n-t, which is being annihilated by human activity, and the p-a-n-d-e-m-i-c, which irreversibly taints his dream of sweaty crowds from Shepton Mallet holding their phones aloft in a pre-fabricated shed next to a four-lane trunk road.

CENTRAL QUAY Over two years ago Brains moved to the new Dragon Brewery in Splott (or ‘Cardiff Bay’ as the brewer prefers to call it) to make way for the 6.5 hectares (16 acres) Central Quay private speculative development of apartment blocks, hotels, shops, restaurants and offices alongside the Taff (marketing slogan: “Live. Work. Play.”) Well, the brewery’s come down (the chimney and a facade have been spared as a nod to ‘heritage’) and the hoardings have gone up, and we are left with a wedge of wasteground while the developers Rightacres tout for overseas investors to fund the project. So, since there is no actual demand for the development and it has nothing to do with what Cardiff needs and everything to do with generating profit for a few fat-cats, we must now wait until tax-haven based hedge funds decide the economic climate is right to bestow another abominable lesion on the city before the buy-to-let brigade pounce to snap up the rabbit hutches. Meanwhile we can make do with artist’s impressions of the completed scheme, showing blissed-out young professionals strolling along verdant walkways, striding purposefully through corporate concourses and fine-dining al fresco by the banks of the river, all to a backdrop of gleaming curtain walls of glass and concrete. The entangled masses of wet-wipes, tampons, toilet paper and plastics that are the Taff’s most striking feature are nowhere to be seen. Funny that.

CENTRAL SQUARE Rightacres are also to blame responsible for the never-ending Central Square development in poor old Temperance Town. Rightacres? More like right achers! A full 13 years since demolition began and six years since the bus station finally closed, completion remains an amorphous concept vaguely discernible on the far horizon. Being a desperately needed public amenity that’s hard to monetise, the bus station is going to be the very last component of the odious and menacing mix that has been hurled at Cardiff. The BBC’s strutting new Welsh HQ, Cardiff University’s grey, glowering School of Journalism Media & Culture, the UK Government’s gargantuan, grotesque tax office and the ‘1 Central Square’ office block disguised as a budget hotel have all been completed, although most of the retail units on their ground floors are vacant, but still Cardiff must wait for the central bus station that every other comparable city in the world possesses (the estimated completion date has shifted from 2012 at the outset and now stands at 2023). Essentially the development boils down to five monstrous tower blocks with the 5th, under which the bus station will squat, currently a half-built immense hulk swaddled in scaffolding. 90% of the structure will be superfluous offices Cardiff doesn’t require and speculative residential apartments destined for Airbnb profiteering, because those were the terms the cringing Council were forced to accept by Rightacres and main funder Legal & General or else we’d never be getting a bus station at all. As for what has been done already, it is an unmitigated horror. The looming, claustrophobic walls tower over dark canyons where the sun will never shine, make not one concession to aesthetics, to proportion or to quality, and create an overall atmosphere of oppressive, uncompromising corporate arrogance The sheer non-negotiable bulk of the buildings makes everything else in the vicinity shrivel by comparison, diminishing and belittling and dehumanising. As for the Square itself, it isn’t a usable public space at all. It’s a bleak void designed to manage crowds heading to the station after a big match at the stadium – and also to monitor the movement of people entering and leaving Cardiff via the encircling phalanxes of high-tech, facial recognition-enabled cameras. There is no encouragement to linger long, otherwise there might be the odd seat or two and some sort of focal point. Instead it’s an alienating, unsympathetic environment, the new paving already deeply engrained with grime, gum, puke and piss. If that wasn’t enough, the main entry point to the capital of Wales now acts as a huge canvas upon which the message WALES IS A CONQUERED COLONY can be emblazoned. Leaving the station one is first confronted by the British Broadcasting Corporation’s shiny new Welsh sub-branch, opened in 2019, an unappealing exercise in pompous self-congratulation and off-the-shelf architectural gimmicks by Foster & Partners, complete with glass overkill, 10 ludicrous pillars supporting an overhanging metallic roof and a de rigeur rounded corner on one flank. This is the sort of voguish, half-baked sub-modernism that always ages badly – and rapidly, if the staining already visible on the cladding is anything to go by. The previous BBC Wales HQ in Llandaf was sold to Taylor Wimpey for a vast development of unaffordable housing and now the fatally-flawed, Tory-run, English media giant has landed in the centre of the city to contemptuously flaunt its absolute monopoly over broadcasting in Wales. Given that the organisation only makes a handful of programmes a year specifically for Wales it might just as well conduct its Welsh operation from a portacabin and broadcast everything else direct from London – but of course the purpose of this edifice is not about programmes; it’s about letting us know who’s in charge. The new tax office on Wood Street is even more brazen. The character-free slab of cold corporatism has the words UK GOVERNMENT in large, unmissable letters at its entrance, something HMRC premises never felt the need to do previously. It’s all part and parcel of the Johnson Government’s aggressive, union jack-brandishing, imperialistic British Nationalism and it brings a shocking, provocative and frightening nastiness to the city. The only redeeming feature is on the Wood Street side of the School of Journalism’s sinister, unforgiving cliff-face, where a quote from Tom Hopkinson (1905-1990), founding director of the faculty back in 1970, is thrust pointedly in the direction of the monopoly controller of the press in Wales, the MediaWales HQ on the other side of the street; “A free press is the most watchful sentry of the state. A ‘yes’ press is fatal to good government”. Ooh, how cheeky!

COAL EXCHANGE The shameful, sorry saga of the Coal Exchange drags on into another decade. In 2016 the Council sold the lease of the crumbling ruin at a knock-down price to a Liverpool-based ‘hospitality company’ called Signature Living (co-founded by an ex-bankrupt who had been disqualified from being a company director for eight years in 2004). Funds were raised by selling hotel rooms to ‘bedroom investors’ who paid thousands for the unbuilt rooms then leased them back in exchange for a cut of the projected profits. This dodgy leveraging (plus Council loans) paid for a £15million partial revamp and it opened as the cod-‘luxury’ Exchange Hotel in 2017. It came as no surprise when the highly speculative venture lasted a mere three years before going into administration in May 2020. The Coal Exchange, one of the few remaining jewels in Cardiff’s tarnished crown, is now in the hands of the Official Receiver. How humiliating! Perhaps the Council will learn the lesson that the bottom of the barrel option usually leads to disaster – but don’t bet on it. And perhaps one day the preposterous delusion that Cardiff is a place where anyone would want to take an expensive holiday will be finally laid to rest – but not yet, because riding to the rescue came ex-Grangetown Labour councillor Ashley Govier with the latest of his many business initiatives, called Eden Grove Properties. The Official Receiver, on behalf of the creditors, was persuaded to give Mr Govier a go at re-opening the hotel and it was re-launched as The Coal Exchange Hotel in October 2020 with only 65 bedrooms in the front section of the building rather than the 200 promised by Signature Living and with precious little sign of the finances required to complete the project. In addition, it seems nobody informed Eden Grove Properties that there was a p-a-n-d-e-m-i-c happening and those rooms in the serially-abused poor old Coal Exchange remained resolutely vacant. Not to worry, because apparently there is shortly going to be a post-pandemic stampede of vaccinated, vacation-hungry visitors and big-spending wedding parties flocking to Cardiff Bay, itching to experience the delights of a filthy, rubbish-choked lagoon in the grey, chilly drizzle. I’m not convinced. Prediction: a miraculously self-combusting fire burns the thing to the ground and, hey presto, problem solved.

INNOVATION CAMPUS Having thoroughly annihilated Cathays, Cardiff University now increasingly focuses northwards on luckless Maendy. Since the Blair era the wholesale marketisation of universities in the UK has turned them into the Big Business model of competitive, growth-fixated, profiteering, empire-builders, and instead of education we now have an ‘Education Industry’. To harvest the licensed larceny of all those gob-smacking tuition fees, only slightly mitigated in Wales by the marginal wriggle-room of devolution, it’s quantity not quality that counts. Sheer student numbers, particularly the especially lucrative international students, are required to make a killing, meaning university marketing teams and publicity machines are in perpetual overdrive trying to lure gullible undergraduates with flashy facilities, high-viz ‘flagship’ projects, vacuous marketing-speak and chilling corporate jargon. Cardiff has made all this an art form under the leadership of Colin Riordan, Vice-Chancellor since 2012. While I’m on the subject of Mr Riordan, am I the only one who found his coming out as ‘bisexual’ at the age of 58 in 2017 strangely inappropriate? Not just because of his age, or the utter so-what irrelevance of the information, or my accumulated personal experience that tells me ‘bisexual’ is usually just a fence-sitting synonym for ‘gay’, or the unbecoming attempt to award himself victim status in a misunderstood minority, or the way it embarrassingly exposed a senior academic as one more identity-fixated slave to fashion, but also because I reckon the sexual predilections of an elderly man in charge of 33,000 young men and women should be kept where they belong: locked and bolted in the deepest recesses of the closet. Now where was I? Oh yes the Innovation Campus, being built on the former Taff Vale Railway sidings between Maindy Road and North Road. The Uni’s own PR blurbs say it all, swimming in torrents of bullshit such as: “a firebox for great ideas, where thinkers meet backers and funders to spark answers to society’s challenges” and “cutting-edge facilities that will help researchers and students work across disciplines and with partners to influence policy and build enterprises that create products, spin-outs, start-ups and social enterprises”. Also amongst the verbiage is Cardiff University’s latest slogan, “Our lifeblood is Wales, but our outlook is global”, in which the use of “but” rather than “and” insultingly places Wales in opposition to their dynamic thrust and buccaneering scope while being grudgingly name-checked as the source of funding. The eternal construction work has been going on in phases for a decade, making life hell for residents in Maindy Road and Blackweir. Walls crack, particulates and dust saturate the air, views are eliminated, health deteriorates, houses can’t be sold, while the domineering buildings foisted on Cardiff, built by London-based construction conglomerate Bouygues and now more or less completed, have all the visual charm of an airport-terminal or a multi-storey carpark. The one certainty is that there will be next to no genuine ‘innovation’ emerging from these carbuncles – simply because all those professors haven’t twigged that authentic ‘innovation’, by definition, cannot be taught since it depends entirely on unteachable things like o-r-g-i-n-a-l-i-t-y and i-n-t-e-l-l-i-g-e-n-c-e. We saw the same hopeless wishful thinking in the ‘Creative Cardiff’ venture launched by the School of Journalism in 2015, which turned out to be little more than a handful of people in advertising (aka ‘creatives’) trying to think up new ways to make money (aka the ‘Creative Industries’). Oh well, I know it’s not much consolation for the slaughter of the natural world, but at least Cardiff University’s sickening hypocrisy, bombastic self-regard and crippling conformity to capitalism’s dictates won’t be around for much longer.

METRO More than four years have slipped by since I last wrote about the planned ‘South Wales Metro’. Update: a depot is being built at Taff’s Well. Other than that not one single rivet has been hammered into place. Everything has been kicked down the road into a future that never arrives, with 2023 now flagged up as a completion date for the upgrading of some of the valleys’ lines and 2028 for the opening of a few derisory and random new stations. The pitifully inadequate three new stations earmarked for Cardiff appear to have been selected purely to encourage a land-grab by property developers rather than to provide a useful rail service for the population, as exemplified by the proposed new ‘Cardiff Parkway’ station out on the far eastern corner of St Mellons, where few people live but where the adjacent Glynllŵg Levels SSSI are ripe for a raping. Whatever happens, this skeletal mini-metro promised in the next decade or so would make next to no difference to Cardiff’s traffic congestion, lethal air pollution and woeful lack of rapid-transit connectivity and inter-connectivity, particularly in the context of the huge, car-dependent housing developments currently being squeezed onto any spare ground and plastered across the city’s green girdle. The Council’s insane obsession with growth above all else – larded with the regulation vacuous greenwash of course – means such a minimalist, unimaginative mockery of a Metro is going to be irrelevant long before it sees the light of day. The phrase ‘pissing in the wind’ comes to mind. The obvious solution is to make Cardiff a largely car-free city and requisition all the main highways for comprehensive tram and light rail networks. This is the sort of radical, far-reaching action being taken in cities around the world, from Bogota to Milan, Ljubljana to Mexico City, but apparently the Welsh Government (which owns Transport for Wales, the body responsible for the Metro) is unaware of something called c-l-i-m-a-t-e c-h-a-n-g-e and Cardiff Council has never heard of the impending phenomenon known as s-e-a-l-e-v-e-l r-i-s-e, hence the tokenism, the lip-service and the complete absence of urgency.

NORTHERN MEADOWS The 2015 Wellbeing of Future Generations Act was an admirable piece of trailblazing legislation which made it a mandatory legal obligation for public bodies in Wales, uniquely in the world, to tailor policies so that their long-term social, cultural and environmental impacts are taken into account. The trouble is, the Act forgot to include any way to ensure its implementation, and without penalties, sanctions, policing mechanisms or time-scales it amounted to nothing more than a Pollyanna wish-list that could be openly flouted without consequences. That is what has happened repeatedly across Wales, the Welsh Government restricting itself to issuing an annual report that nobody reads and treating the Act as a mere box-ticking, toothless gesture. The outrageous destruction of the Northern Meadows between Whitchurch and Coryton is a typical example of this. In order to build a big new cancer centre to replace Velindre Hospital, Cardiff & Vale University Health Board plan to completely wipe out the 14 hectares (34 acres) of exquisite, peaceful, wild meadowland along with its 1,000+ trees, no matter that it’s a designated SINC (Site of Importance for Nature Conservation). In the process, grievous inroads will also be made into the adjacent Glamorganshire Canal SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), Fforest Farm LNR (Local Nature Reserve) and the magical Long Wood railway cutting. The underlying motive is to wheel and deal in the property market, make millions by selling off the old Whitchurch Psychiatric Hospital (opened 1908, closed 2016 – the breakfasts were awful!) as well as the neighbouring land occupied by Velindre, and thereby enable property developers to throw up yet more ‘luxury’ apartments and ‘executive’ housing. A vigorous local campaign (Save the Northern Meadows) has not so far shifted the Health Board from its stubborn defiance of all the expert scientific evidence (including over 100 senior cancer clinicians), despite their being plenty of alternative suitable brown-field sites for what is a much-needed expanded cancer centre. Cardiff Council duly nodded through planning permission, the Welsh Government’s useless Minister for the Environment Lesley Griffiths rubber-stamped the scheme and the then Health Minister Vaughan Gething gave it the final go-ahead just before the recent election. So that’s three public bodies – the Health Board, the Council and the Government itself – blithely ignoring their express legal duty to protect and enhance biodiversity and ensure sustainable development. To add insult to injury they have the gall to pose as benevolent humanitarians who only want to ‘fight’ cancer, when the very same bodies and their predecessors have for decades presided over, or acquiesced with, the turning of Cardiff into Europe’s worst cancer hot-spot, awash with nuclear waste, leakages, dumps and radiation. Is the Health Board not cognisant of the idea that p-r-e-v-e-n-t-i-o-n i-s b-e-t-t-e-r t-h-a-n c-u-r-e? They are spitting in the face of the people of Cardiff, the climate emergency and the mass extinction of species and must be stopped by any means necessary. Or else there won’t be a future for anyone.

PINEWOOD STUDIO WALES This outstation of the Shepperton film studio in England opened in 2015 in a disused warehouse on the Glynllŵg Levels to fanfares of self congratulation from Carwyn Jones’s Labour Government: at last Wales was going to get itself a film industry! It closed in 2018 to the sound of lame excuses and the rustle of scathing reports from the Wales Audit office and a Senedd Committee. At a conservative estimate over £15 million of public money had been spent buying the site, kitting it out and paying the running costs before Pinewood jumped ship – which seems an awful lot to pay for The Bastard Executioner, pseudo-historical hokum that aired on US pay-TV channel FX before being cancelled after one series, the instantly forgettable Doctor Who spin-off Class, shown on condescending ‘yoof’ channel BBC3 before it too was cancelled after a solitary series, and a few episodes of the BBC’s simultaneously overcooked and underwhelming Sherlock. So here is the sum total of Pinewood’s contribution to the nascent Welsh film industry: some bad telly, with Wales just a cheap studio space with picturesque locations. We were shafted. The studio was rented out to Bad Wolf TV for a year – in which comic-book fantasies aimed at particularly gormless adolescents like A Discovery of Witches, The Huntsman and Show Dogs were released to unanimous critical pannings – before the Welsh Government, desperate to get any sort of return on their investment, rebranded the studio as Seren Stiwdios in 2020 and struck a deal with Great Point, a London-based “boutique media business”, to take over the running of the complex for 10 years. The financial details of this deal have, of course, been kept strictly confidential. Meanwhile Bad Wolf, founded in 2015 by two former BBC executives, continues to lease space and produce juvenile, Americanised, TV trash, most notably the plodding, drawn-out, instantly forgettable His Dark Materials, yet another derivative fantasy epic for screen-addicted teenagers unaware of the existence of r-e-a-l l-i-f-e. Stand by for more of the same: not Lights! Camera! Action! but Blight Cymru! Inaction!

ROATH BROOK FLOOD SCHEME Where measures are taken to deal with the climate crisis they invariably tackle the effects rather than the causes and are never more than a short-term ‘technical fix’ – the very approach that brought about this catastrophe in the first place. To solve the potential problem of flooding along the lower course of the Nant Fawr through Roath, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) have constrained the River Rhymni tributary within barriers of hideous concrete walls and earth embankments in Roath Mill Gardens, Waterloo Gardens and The Sandy, felling nearly 40 mature trees in the process, mutilating the riverbanks, wreaking havoc on the ecology and beauty of the parks and turning the wild waterway into little more than a grim gutter. The expert environmentalists at NRW must surely be aware that trees are huge consumers of water through their roots and actually prevent flooding – which is why mass tree-planting in flood-prone areas is taking place around the world. If not, they shouldn’t be in the job – and if they did do Biology GCSE and have heard of something known as o-s-m-o-s-i-s they should be sacked for near-criminal negligence that has only managed to increase the likelihood of flooding along the Nant Fawr. In 2018 determined local opposition succeeded in halting NRW’s vandalism in this ‘designated conservation area’ before it could be inflicted further upstream in Roath Brook Gardens, but the damage was done. Some of Cardiff’s loveliest parks have been ruined, and the laying out a few new flower-beds in Waterloo Gardens, the planting of some saplings in Roath Rec and a piddling piece of insipid ‘public art’ in Roath Mill Gardens can be no compensation. NRW say these works mean the flooding risk is now once every 75 years – but that figure is not just meaningless guesswork but hopelessly out-of-date; climatologists now predict half of Cardiff will be under water in 50 years unless immediate action is taken to halt the planet-wide destruction. NRW’s futile answer would be to build those walls higher and higher – like the 10 metre (32 feet) high, supposedly ‘tsunami-proof’ ramparts that proved so irrelevant in Japan in 2011. They’re in denial, unwilling to face the inconvenient fact that, if the nice middle-class villas of Roath are to be saved before the Severn Sea really starts surging up the Rhymni, only the complete dismantling of the capitalist system and a managed, orderly contraction of human numbers and human activity can reverse the march towards extinction.

THE CANAL QUARTER The Council have come up with another cunning masterplan to keep the wheels of Cardiff’s one-trick ‘economy’ spinning: open up the 1839 Dock Feeder that was buried under Churchill Way in 1949, line it with apartment blocks, hotels, shops, bars and restaurants and, lo and behold, you’ve got yourself a “vibrant new district”. Hey, it can be called ‘The Canal Quarter’! Well, everywhere else has got one! Much as I am in favour of the total restoration of all the man-made waterways of Cardiff (unforgivably eliminated by previous bungling fools in City Hall – do we get an apology?), the very fact that the scheme is being promoted with trademark blind optimism by a certain Mr R Goodway means it would be an absolute turkey if it ever became reality. Is the man oblivious to the ranks of boarded-up shops and ‘hospitality’ outlets in the city centre? Has he not heard of C-o-v-i-d? Does he not know that his style of race-to-the-bottom, gung-ho, pack ’em in consumerism is d-e-a-d? I suppose not, considering he doesn’t even know that this ‘Canal’ was never a canal at all, but a shallow, non-navigable D-o-c-k F-e-e-d-e-r for the West Dock (filled in, 1970). The waterways of Cardiff should be restored to provide pleasant environments, footpaths, cycle-ways, green space, wildlife corridors, biodiversity and some blessed relief from commerce, not to provide corporate chains with a watery backdrop, and the entire three miles of the Dock Feeder should be restored from its source at Blackweir all the way to the Severn, not just for for a trifling 200 yards at Churchill Way. As is the norm with Cardiff Council, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand’s doing: the Feeder’s extant, open-air stretch down the east flank of Bute Park is in a scandalously terrible condition; the chance to open up a section between Park Place and Churchill Way is being destroyed as I type this by the construction of yet another superfluous student tower; and, likewise, the chance to create a significant, transformative green artery along the section between Bute Terrace and Atlantic Wharf was tossed away when a giant student tower erected at the west end of the half-empty ‘Capital Quarter’ resulted in a dead drain without a footpath, without public access, and without a single concession to nature. Conclusion? It’s all just marketing. Don’t believe a word of it.