Cardiff ‘not taking jobs away from other parts of Wales’: Council leader’s revealing election interview
Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter
An annual music festival could launch in Cardiff rivalling the Edinburgh Fringe if Labour keeps control of the council in May, according to the council leader.
Labour has run the city since 2012, and Huw Thomas has led the council since 2017.
Now in a candid interview ahead of the local elections on May 5, Mr Thomas has argued his case for another five years in power.
Over coffee in a Cardiff Bay cafe, the council leader revealed his frustration with delays to the new bus station, when a congestion charge might come in, and plans for a new music festival.
Building new council housing and raising education standards is where he said he feels Labour has achieved the most since he became leader, as well as drastically reducing the number of rough sleepers.
“We’ve turned around a situation,” he said, “where one in 10 16-year-olds were leaving school at 16 with no destination into further education or employment—that’s now less than two in 100. That’s going to make such a big difference to the life outcomes of our young people.
“Likewise, the 1,000 council houses we will have built by the end of this year is a direct material improvement in the lives of people who are now living in those houses.
“We’ve brought homelessness down to record levels, from 100 rough sleepers a few years ago to fewer than 20 now. That’s a big difference we’ve made to the quality of life for those people.”
Asked what his biggest regret was, Mr Thomas replied that he was frustrated by how long the new bus station has taken to build. After several years of delays, the bus station is finally due to open next year, although it’s still unclear exactly when.
He said: “When I became leader in May 2017, one of the first things I said was our priority is to get the bus station delivered. Now, the bus station is currently being built and it opens next year. Could we have done it quicker? Well, that’s what we’ve been pushing for throughout the last five years.
“But because of the way you have to build the funding around this and get different people involved, like the Welsh Government and Transport for Wales, this adds complexity and time.
“At the end of the day, the approach on the bus station has either protected or created close to 2,000 jobs in the city, in the office space created above, and it has been delivered at no cost to the Cardiff taxpayer. So those are big achievements, but the time it has taken to get that is frustrating.”
‘Thousands in poverty’
As for the biggest surprise on serving as council leader, he said he was initially taken aback by the wide range of areas the council works in, adding that sometimes residents complain about issues beyond the council’s control.
Meanwhile, a huge part of the council’s budget goes on schools and care, and many people without children or elderly relatives don’t directly see this work.
“I have been surprised in part by the breadth of the work the council does,” he said. “Even as a councillor you don’t see all of it. What surprised me is the mismatch between what people think the council does and they think we should do more on, and what the council actually does and they don’t have the visibility of—but it’s often life-saving work.
“We have a £750-million budget and probably the two biggest parts of that is schools and social services. Unless you have kids in school or a family member in receipt of social services, you don’t see any of that critically important work”
Priorities for a Labour-run council after the election would include housing, economic recovery post-Covid, supporting people hit by skyrocketing inflation, and addressing the climate crisis. A further 1,500 new council homes are planned by 2028.
He said: “The cost of living crisis is going to be devastating, with the mixture of Brexit and Ukraine playing out. I think it’s going to leave thousands of families in real poverty. Not just those who had been on the edge of poverty previously, but also those who were doing more or less OK.
“A priority for the next Labour administration will be supporting and protecting our residents from the cost of living, and also vulnerable residents who rely on council services.
“Our ambition is to be carbon neutral by 2030, and that requires an awful lot of work. We need a public transport network that’s fit for purpose for a modern capital city, and more safer active travel infrastructure as well.
“That’s one of the things I’m really proud of that we’ve changed. I think it’s 15 kilometres now of segregated cycleways in the city, up from near zero in 2017. We want to see more of that, to encourage people to be able to travel by any mode other than their car.”
One recent problem the city has faced is music venues closing down, with Gwdihŵ, Buffalo, and Dempseys among some recently closed. But Labour wants Cardiff to be among the top British cities for live music, with plans for a new annual ‘signature music event’ similar to the Edinburgh Fringe arts festival.
Last summer saw Cardiff Castle used for well attended concerts to mark the return of live music and this spring the city is hosting the BBC’s Six Music Festival, both with support from the council.
“It’s still in part under wraps for now but I think those gigs in the Castle and the Six Music Festival are exactly the foretaste of what it could be like. We have a strong record of delivering major events. But often these come to the city and then the following year they’ll go somewhere else.
“We see the opportunity, through our music strategy, to organically grow our own music event, and do through music for Cardiff what drama has done for Edinburgh.”
Music plays a part in the 36-year-old council leader’s background. Mr Thomas studied music at Oxford, playing the double bass, before returning home to Aberystwyth for a master’s in international relations.
He worked as a project manager, first for Airbus then with Sustrans, before becoming the head of Christian Aid Wales. He became a councillor in 2012.
“When I look at every positive change in Wales and the UK over the last 100 years,” he said, “the conclusion I came to was that it had been delivered by the Labour party. From creating the NHS to [decriminalising] homosexuality, to the minimum wage in 1999 and devolution, all of that was delivered by the Labour party.
“The idea that we’re better and stronger together than the sum of our parts, both as different nations in the UK or as individuals within communities, is a powerful driver.
“In 2012 there was an opportunity with two councillors in my ward where I live stepping down, and I put my name forward. I love Splott, there’s so much good happening there, but there’s also poverty. I thought as someone blessed with a good education, if I can as a councillor help some of the people less fortunate than me get the services, support and advocacy they need, that feels like a positive thing to do.
“It’s a 24/7 role, and that’s not straightforward when you have a young family, but I have wonderful support from my wife. One thing striking about being a council leader is the diversity of the work, across a plethora of subjects and on so many different levels.
“Within the space of a day, you could be going from meeting government ministers or elected mayors from all over the world, to having a meeting with a community sports club or an individual struggling with housing.”
‘Better public transport’
This April, many in Cardiff will be worse off due to increasing energy bills, food costs, and rising national insurance rates. The council is helping through its Money Advice Service and Into Work Service, supporting people to get benefits and jobs. Building council housing and paying the real living wage is also playing a role, Mr Thomas said.
“In the last five years, council services have helped tap into a claim of £75 million of benefits that people were eligible for, but they weren’t aware of or weren’t claiming. That’s allied with the Into Work Service, which helps people skill up and access employment opportunities.
“Housing is also a significant cost in people’s budgets, and an increasing one. If you’re on benefits, the local housing allowance which is set by the UK government hasn’t kept pace with the cost of housing. That’s why we’re building public council housing, because the private sector is getting too expensive for more and more people.
“There’s also things we want to do on retrofitting homes and insulation, because people’s heating bills are going up—we can make people’s homes more energy efficient so that they’re spending less on their gas. Clearly that’s got a climate change dimension to it as well.”
Another potential addition to people’s bills is a congestion charge in Cardiff. Labour said it would be £2 a day and just for non-residents, but Tory councillors have raised concerns Cardiff residents may end up paying, and the initial £2 fee could increase. Mr Thomas argued if Wales received its share of consequential funding from HS2, a charge wouldn’t be needed. Initial plans are expected in a year or two.
“We want a better public transport system in Cardiff,” he said, “without that there’s no way the city’s economy can achieve what it needs to and there’s no way we can transition people away from driving, to make an impact on climate change. But how do we fund that?
“Our preference would be a scheme where Cardiff residents don’t pay. Three months after that transport strategy was published [January 2020], we’re into Covid and the world is a different place now than it was then. Whether the economic argument for a congestion charge still stacks up, I don’t know.
“The UK Government and the Welsh Government are looking at these options, and it’s appropriate for Cardiff council to also look at this. If Wales were receiving the consequential funding share of High Speed 2 that we are entitled to, in the region of £5 billion, I could say categorically there’s no need for a congestion charge because that money would deliver the improvements we need. But the Tories are refusing to give Wales that funding.
“But the immediate challenge concerning the residents of Cardiff isn’t a hypothetical charge in a few years, it’s how are they going to pay their heating bills when their national insurance costs are also going up by hundreds of pounds.”
‘Not taking jobs away’
While Cardiff has seen huge levels of investment in recent years, many have questioned how the Welsh capital appears to get far more money and jobs than elsewhere in Wales. Between 2015 and 2020, almost four of five net new jobs in Wales were created in Cardiff, according to the council.
“The types of jobs we’re creating in Cardiff now aren’t stolen from elsewhere in Wales, they’re jobs we have competed for with other British cities,” Huw Thomas said.
“They’re jobs in fintech, creative industries, and cyber which otherwise would be based in Bristol or Birmingham or Edinburgh. 20 years ago far more people would leave university and look eastwards down the M4 for their career.
“Over half of the population of Wales live within less than an hour of Cardiff city centre. Creating jobs here is creating work accessible to the majority of people in Wales. This isn’t taking jobs away from other parts of Wales.
“There’s certainly a tension, a drive from the Welsh Government to encourage businesses to invest in other parts of Wales—but when a company is either going to come to Cardiff or go to Birmingham, we should be in the game and bring those companies to Cardiff.”
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