Why is Cardiff so unloved? Not that such ambivalence to capital cities is uncommon. For years Dublin was seen as English by many republicans and it was not until the 1970’s that the city’s magnificent Georgian architecture received a level of protection. Other, more contrived, capitals have struggled for acceptance: Abuja, Brasilia, Canberra and even, for a while, Washington DC. These cities did not capture the essence of their respective nations. And this seems to be the trouble with Cardiff.
Although it has an impressive Roman and Medieval heritage, Cardiff as we know it is a creation of the industrial revolution. Instead of celebrating its modernity, we often see it as foreign and imposed. Cardiff was created by the carbon of English capital, not the camaraderie of Welsh culture. Or so it appears to a lot of us. There is just not enough Caerdydd in Cardiff. And of the capitals of the Home Nations, it is the most marginal in the popular imagination.
The charge sheet is old and long. Too English, Tory, aloof and always taking the main chance at the expense of the rest of Wales! And it seems we must now add the strange phenomenon of the Cardiff ‘bubble’ which has cocooned the National Assembly and compromised the success of devolution.
These accusations are mostly unfair. It is a wild exaggeration to claim that Cardiff actively hoards resources that should be spread around Wales. But there is a germ of truth in the criticism that Cardiff is not yet fully the champion of Wales.
This sells the nation short and we all need to do something about it. But those of us who live or work in Cardiff have the prime responsibility to promote the full potential of the city. For too long we have buried a great treasure.
Cardiff has to belong to the whole of Wales, particularly when it comes to economic development. Many nations and regions around Europe have been regenerated using the city-region model. Here the principal city in a nation or region is seen as having general responsibilities for the nation’s prosperity. Perhaps the most striking example is Barcelona and its mission to be the hub for Catalonian regeneration. Unless this approach is pursued there is a danger that a capital city becomes an island of prosperity pulling in talent and resources from its national hinterland.
Cardiff is far from dilatory in grasping this challenge. But there is a need to do more to develop cultural, business and education networks across Wales and to use them as a resource to attract investment to Wales. For example, Cardiff University is now one of the leading universities in the World. It is probably the only HE institution in Wales that can hope to sustain such status. However, it must surely retain a wider responsibility for HE networks of excellence across Wales.
It is in marketing that performance has to be most radically improved. Cardiff is one of Europe’s finest smaller capitals. It amazes me that when people visit Cardiff from England or further afield they frequently say how utterly surprised they are to discover such a stunning city. Cardiff is the most popular venue in the Six Nations championship; it hosted six FA cup finals with alacrity; and last summer’s Ashes test match could not have gone better. In fairness, Wales plc did get its marketing act together for the test match. But this was a rare triumph. We need to make such best practice common practice.
Where to begin? Well my opening blast is a little eccentric but please bear with me. More statues! And some of the statues we’ve got need to be relocated. I am not suggesting some post-Soviet purge where every statue is suddenly shunted off to a suburban park. But statues tell you a lot about a city’s priorities and self-image. Can anyone tell me why the Hayes is presided over by John Batchelor? Have you ever heard of him? What did he do of national significance? By the way, he is the man often seen with a traffic cone on his head.
Now that the splendid St. David’s 2 development is complete, why not replace this obscure Victorian with St. David? Our national saint can boast amongst his many achievements the fact that he actually existed – unlike, to take an example at random, St. George. What better way to adorn Cardiff’s most prominent square?
We must learn to think well beyond city limits and focus on the nation. So let’s shift David Lloyd George who is presently hidden away in shrubbery, his back to the city, near the National Museum. I would put the greatest politician that Wales has produced – the last PM to be the leader of the western world – in the Hayes to keep St. David company!
Before statues become a complete obsession, let me commend the recently unveiled statue of Ivor Novello outside the Millennium Centre. Why not make the Oval Basin an alfresco pantheon to great Welsh artists? My nomination for the next statue to join Novello is Iolo Morganwg. It says it all that this colossus of Welsh cultural life is unrecognised in the capital – and Iolo a local boy to boot! It is little wonder so few outside Britain have the first idea about Wales and its exhilarating history.
More vital still is the need to recognise Cardiff for what it is: Britain’s greatest Victorian-Edwardian city. Cardiff is to Victorian architecture what Dublin is to Georgian. But why don’t we say so? While Cardiff rates as one of Britain’s better visited medium sized cities, our aspirations must be set much higher. The market we need to attract is top end tourism.
So let’s shout about Cardiff Castle and its world class pre-Raphaelite interior design. Why be modest about Cardiff’s ethereal and beautifully spacious arcades? Am I the only one enchanted by Bute Park at the very heart of our city? It is even more prominent than Central Park in New York! Cardiff’s carefully planned civic centre can stand comparison to those of grander scale in Washington DC and New Delhi. And the city is home to some of Britain’s finest Victorian pubs.
But just put yourself in the position of, say, an American tourist visiting the city. If you have prepared well you would have read about Cardiff’s many wonders in books like the Rough Guide or Lonely Planet. Just as well, because if you relied on Welsh marketing you would be struggling. The city has no museum dedicated to its history. There is no regular tour of Cardiff’s stunning architecture (a truly astonishing omission). You could spend all day walking up and down what is probably the greatest Victorian street in Britain, Cathedral Road, without coming across a scrap of tourist information far less a house or two restored to high Victorian or Edwardian style. It really is hopeless!
Great cities attract tourists, investors, big events and worldwide attention. With a bit of strategic thinking capital cities can lead national economic regeneration. But Cardiff in microcosm still suffers from the now waning Welsh inferiority complex. So what if we are not Edinburgh or London? Cardiff has its own wonders. It is a capital city forged by modern forces and not those lost in the mists of time. People can relate to that and more readily access the city’s attractions. When Cardiff takes itself seriously and stops being embarrassed by its riches, it will play a blinder for Wales.