Reflections on Cardiff Bay - 30 years on

Cardiff Bay made investors of all types look at Cardiff and Wales in a very different light

14 November 2017

Share this

Thirty years ago this year, the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation was set up to oversee the regeneration of much of South Cardiff, and the term “Cardiff Bay” came into common use. It is now over 15 years since the Corporation was wound up. So, in 2017, how should we look back at an organisation and development process that dominated Cardiff in the final years of the twentieth century?

I was a professional working in Cardiff when the Corporation was set up in 1987 and I had a good insight into how radical the process would be. The Cardiff Bay years were busy and challenging but often exhilarating ones professionally. Having been closely involved in acquiring and developing property within the Bay and contributing to some of the Barrage Bill work, it is interesting to stand back and see it all with a more objective eye.

At the time of the designation and the years that followed, “Cardiff Bay” was a very divisive, almost Marmite-like entity. The remit of the development corporation was to bring about change, and this worked at many levels. The central focus of the scheme was the creation of the Cardiff Bay lake, which was intended to create an enticing environment and regenerate the large areas of derelict dockland and former industrial areas that dominated south Cardiff. 

The negative environmental impact of this project was potentially enormous on wading birds, ecology and ground water. A more positive result was the modernisation of the creaking sewage system in south Cardiff, where sewers until then discharged into the Bay, and the effective creation of a large flood protection scheme. The clearance of the remaining old industries in south Cardiff was contentious and painful, but alongside it went the process of decontamination and site improvement, which was carried out to right the legacy of the coal exporting days of the nineteenth century. As old industries went, new industries which were based on office, and service activities moved in, bringing with them high quality jobs and salaries.

Housing was an emotive topic during the life of the Corporation, and still is.  The large housing areas of Grangetown, Butetown, Splott and Tremorfa, as well as Penarth Headland were largely untouched by the Development Corporation, which focused its attention otherwise on the non-residential areas where most change was needed.  The concerns at the time were about an influx of “yuppies” and outsiders.  Today, much of the housing is apartment led and   any direct impact on the populations of south Cardiff is hard to gauge. However, a process of osmosis has seemingly taken place in terms of job opportunity, mobility in housing, and relatively seamless integration of the existing populations with the new face of south Cardiff and east Penarth. 

As well as improving the physical infrastructure of south Cardiff, one of the aims was to improve the transport system. Cardiff Bay benefited from the already rolling programme of building the peripheral distributor road around Cardiff, and a notable achievement of the Corporation was to persuade central government to fund the PDR being put into a tunnel through Butetown rather than on an embankment or viaduct.  Lloyd George Avenue was an expensive commodity but, in terms of how the road system has evolved in Central Cardiff, it is now something of a white elephant. There was unfinished business with transport, and links to the city centre, while improved, still await the step change that the electrified Metro will now hopefully deliver.  The network of walkways and cycleways, especially around the edge of the Bay, are however a valuable legacy for the city and make it a unique waterfront environment in the UK. 

Cardiff Bay Development Corporation spent a lot of money and, as with projects such as HS2 and Crossrail, there are always claims that the money could be better spent.  In the context of what is now on the ground in south Cardiff, as well as the overall spin-off effects of investment elsewhere, there has been a good return on the public investment.  The marketing budget that Cardiff Bay held was the envy of many, and we all remember the signs at Paddington Station, the mermaid logo and the Frank Bruno/Lennox Lewis fight which was sponsored by Cardiff Bay Development Corporation - taking the mermaid logo all over the US cable network. 

Cardiff Bay Development Corporation existed in a very political climate.  Because it was centrally funded from Westminster (until, halfway through its life, devolution took place) it was handed many powers that the local authority traditionally would have had.  This made it ripe for political polarisation. Eventually, of course, the new Assembly established itself in Cardiff Bay.  Because it was such a political entity, the Corporation was wound up, perhaps a few years too early, and this resulted in some items not being quite finished, principally the complex linkages with the city centre and the development of the more peripheral areas at Pengam and Ferry Road. However, even though the Corporation was wound up, new opportunities were created in the buoyant new Millennium years, and the Sports Village proposals gradually came to life.

Although there are very many tangible legacies of the activities of Cardiff Bay in south Cardiff, perhaps the greatest impact was in the wider Cardiff area, south east Wales and indeed Wales itself.  In the late 1980s, industrialised Wales was in a difficult position with the virtual disappearance of the coal industry and a substantial run down of the steel industry. Wales was not looked on from outside in a very positive light, but what Cardiff Bay did was make new investors of all types look at Cardiff and Wales differently. The marketing spend linked to that of the WDA steadily promoted a very different face of Wales. The USP of Cardiff Bay itself with a waterfront lake makes Cardiff different to any other city in the UK.

These days I never hear people talk about the groundwater, the sewers, the dereliction, the wading birds, the turmoil and change or the politics of Cardiff Bay.  What I do hear are positive comments, especially from visitors, people in business and people abroad, all of whom now know of Cardiff and Wales, which wouldn’t have been the case 30 years ago.

In its relatively short life, the Corporation was a major stimulus and step change in this process of turning around Wales.  When it was designated, it was said that it would take a generation for all of the change to be effective. Now, a generation on, it can be seen in a very much more objective and, I believe, positive light.