Is it time to move Wales’ capital from Cardiff?

Canberra, the Capital of Australia. Picture by Jason Tong. ( CC BY 2.0)


Ifan Morgan Jones

One recurring theme throughout Wales’ history has been its tendency to copy England’s blueprint.

That’s no surprise – an awful lot of former British colonies copy England. Westminster isn’t called the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ for nothing. And in many cases, it’s no bad thing.

England, as the first modern nation-state, has served as a model for many of the world’s polities.

But Wales’ over-dependence on Britain’s (read England’s) example means that we sometimes don’t realise that other, better models exist to be emulated.

Because of this, as well as copying what England does well, we also sometimes copy what it does badly.

One of these bad habits is over-centralisation – ironically, one of the very things devolution was designed to solve.

Cardiff is very quickly becoming a second London. A booming city that sucks in investment and is largely unrepresentative of the rest of the nation.

Don’t get me wrong – I love Cardiff. And if Wales is to stand on its own two feet economically, it needs an economic and cultural engine – a prosperous multicultural world city.

But what is also needed is a balance. Our growth-obsessed political culture means it’s all too easy to keep feeding the goose that lays the golden eggs your best wheat.

Economic growth is important but so is the political stability of the nation, and it’s important that the government isn’t seen to be over-investing in the core at the expense of the periphery.

After all, one of the driving forces behind Welsh nationalism is and always has been that the country is largely ignored by the London-centric establishment.

It’s hard to make that case in some parts of Wales when – because of over-centralisation as well as poor transport links – Cardiff is just as distant and unfamiliar as London.

International examples

There’s no good reason either why our nation’s capital needs to be the nation’s largest city.

Canberra in Australia is far smaller than the largest city, Sydney. New Delhi in India is tiny compared to Mumbai.

Brasilia is far smaller than several other cities in Brazil, Beijing is smaller than Shanghai, Pretoria is smaller than Johannesburg, Ottawa is smaller than Toronto, Washington D.C. can’t be compared to New York.

In fact, as you scan the list of 35 prominent nation-states where the capital is much smaller than many other urban centres, you realise that the ‘stick the capital in the largest city’ approach is only ‘normal’ to us because we live in the shadow of London.

And, in fact, there have been increasing calls of late to move the capital of England to Manchester.

Cardiff is big enough to do without being the Welsh capital. It had been a booming sea-port for over 100 years before being chosen as the capital in 1955.

It would have no problem filling the office space and employing the workforce if the Welsh Government or Parliament were to relocate elsewhere.

The city is already well-known internationally and would suffer no loss of prestige as the result of a move, any more than Sydney suffers because it isn’t the Australian capital.

It would, in fact, allow Wales’ to develop a little more strength in depth, rather than becoming known for one city at the expense of all others.

But where?

You may be completely on board so far – you may not – but the difficult second question is of course where to put the capital city.

The two other towns in the running in the 1950s were Swansea and Caernarfon.

Moving the capital to Swansea might be popular with the jacks not do very much to solve the problem of over-centralisation on the M4 corridor.

Moving the capital to Caernarfon would bring some much-needed balance to Wales’ north/south, east/west axis. It’s a poor area and could do with a lot more investment.

However, it might be a mistake politically to locate your Senedd in an area where support for devolution is at its highest anyway.

There is a danger that you would lose those areas of Wales suspicious of being run by cultural nationalists in the ‘Fro Gymraeg’.

My solution is a little bit utopian but bear with me – I would create a completely new capital, somewhere in the midlands.

There would be five advantages to doing so, in my opinion:

  • Neither north Wales or south Wales would feel they were missing out. In fact, it might just render the idea of there being a separate ‘north Wales’ and ‘south Wales’ obsolete
  • It would encourage civil servants to prioritise north/south transport links within Wales, so that the entire population has access to the capital
  • It wouldn’t be too far from HS2, opening up financial links the length of Britain rather than having to make a binary choice between London or ‘the Northern Powerhouse’
  • It could be designed with the latest knowledge in city planning in mind, with an emphasis on public transport, sustainability, cycle routes and green spaces
  • It would bring investment to Wales’ equivalent of ‘fly over country’

Brasilia, Washington D.C. and Canberra are good examples of planned cities designed from scratch to fulfil the job of being their nation’s capital.

What all three have in common is that they’re lovely places, full of green spaces, attractive architecture and a generally high quality of life.

You wouldn’t have to locate everything in this city either – as in Australia, ministries and offices could be distributed throughout the country.

This is utopian, I know. I don’t imagine for a second that a country that can’t build a half-decent road across Wales has the vision to bring such an ambitious project to fruition!

But there’s no harm however in radical thinking which may spur new ideas and solutions to some of the problems that face us as a nation.

There’s no good reason to stick to the London model in a nation-state which is beginning to crack under the weight of geographic and financial inequality.

Wales can look at what has worked well beyond the British Isles and build a nation-state in which all parts of the country feel that they’re getting their fair share.

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